By MICHAEL LETENDRE
DERBY – With win number eight hanging in the balance – meaning automatic state tournament qualification – the St. Paul boys basketball team turned to its trio of senior captains to get the job done.
And like so many times in the past, the trio responded and rose to the challenge.
In the end, Ben Mazzone, Mike Ranagan and Jackson Hines combined to score 52 points and pushed the Falcons passed scrappy Derby by a 78-68 final from Derby high school on Thursday, Feb. 11 in a Naugatuck Valley League tilt.
With that win, the Falcons (8-8) not only clawed back to the .500 barrier but also qualified for the Class S state tournament tilt in March.
This one was about defense and St. Paul took what the Red Raiders gave them, worked hard defensively to slow the home squad down and in the end, the net result was a 10-point road win.
“The kids are working their tails off and we felt with this one [against Derby], let’s make it simple,” said St. Paul coach Steve Phelps. “We looked to go man-to-man when we scored and zone on a miss. [We] sprinkled in a little here and there, maybe on an isolated situation, but we held our seniors accountable.”
“Ranagan, you’re going to guard No. 11 [Chester Dockery], Hines, you’re going to guard No. 4 [Jahwan Cody]…and [just] stop them. We want to get where we want to go. Stop them, very simple.”
And that senior core did it on the defensive end as well and in terms of transition – when Derby lagged to get back on defense – the lay-ups and high percentage hoops came reigning down for the Falcons.
Jackson Hines didn’t miss much against Derby, he attacked the hoop with zest and came away with a team best 21 points that also included a couple rebounds and five assists.
Mazzone kept the ball moving in the Falcons’ offensive schemes as well; and in the end, his 16 points and four rebounds were a big contribution to the winning effort.
And then, Ranagan was just everywhere on the court, flipping in 15 points and scooped in a team high 12 rebounds – all the while turning the ball over just once under the Derby pressure.
“Those three guys that kind of carried the load, maybe our guys in the preseason saw something with them, those are our three captains – not to say that anybody else doesn’t deserve credit as well – but I thought we distributed the ball well,” said Phelps. “The scoring was spread. [Mike] Palmieri had a tough night but, you know what, his buddies picked him up.”
Palmieri struggled from the field and even though his shots didn’t fall, he still came away with nine points, five rebounds, and four assists while Austin Jones just missed out on a double-double, throwing in eight points and eight rebounds.
The bench all made a critical contribution as Eli Kennedy sank home five points while “big” Chadd Richardson’s hoops and rebounding was critical during St. Paul’s second period surge.
Richardson threw in four points and nabbed four rebounds – all in the second tilt of action – while nabbing five boards overall, which co-led the squad at the half.
Dockery led all players with 25 points, hitting five 3s in the process but seemed content to throw up several long NBA range three-pointers in the second half and on those misses, the Falcons were off to the races in transition, which led to numerous lay-ups and high percentage buckets.
But it was a game early as Derby took the initial lead and when Dockery hit his first three with 1:12 left in the first, the Red Raiders led 16-11.
However, that edge evaporated when Kennedy and Mazzone posted back-to-back three’s and at the end of one period, St. Paul led by a 17-16 edge and the tide of the game was beginning to turn.
Derby tied it back up at 19-19 with 6:18 left in the half but a St. Paul run was about to unfold.
Three’s by Hines and Ranagan highlighted a quick 10-0 burst and it was a 29-19 game with 4:18 remaining in the second period of play.
Dockery and Cody canned three-point bombs to keep things close to end the frame but Kennedy canned a free throw and when Hines slipped in one last lay-in, the Falcons edge reached 42-34 at the half.
“They made the extra pass, they found the open man, going strong to the basket, finishing when getting fouled,” said Phelps. “They were a lot of good things. A lot of positives.”
Derby refused to yield in the third period, cutting the deficit to five off a three-point play from Isaiah Walker but a put-back from Ranagan and a Hines’ charity toss made it a 51-43 game with 4:25 remaining in the third tilt.
The Falcons went in front by double-figures again as Ranagan hit a lay-up and Jones had a hoop via a nifty spin move and that lead was back up to 57-46 with 1:30 left in the third frame. But the Red Raiders didn’t yield as the deficit was chopped to seven before two freebies from Ranagan made it a 61-52 game with one quarter to go.
And it was only a three possession game midway through the fourth as St. Paul started converting big hoops down the stretch.
When Hines converted on an offensive rebound and put-back and Palmieri calmly nailed two free throws, the road team was up 71-60 with 3:46 to go as time was becoming a factor.
From there, Dockery’s last three of the contest chopped it to an eight point game but when Hines nailed down a short hoop and Mazzone cashed in a three-point play, it was all but over as St. Paul led 76-63 with 1:36 remaining.
Derby got as close as 10 points the rest of the way as the Falcons once again qualified for state tournament play behind a 10 point win over the Red Raiders.
“We accepted that challenge,” said Phelps. “I’m certainly very proud of all the kids but I’m certainly proud and very happy for our seniors.”
By MICHAEL LETENDRE