By MICHAEL LETENDRE
MERIDEN – Any time the boys basketball squads from Bristol Central and Maloney get together, it’s always an entertaining affair and a close bout.
And on Monday, Dec. 19 – from the newly refurbished Nessing Gymnasium at Maloney High School – the two squads did not disappoint.
The Spartans gave the Rams everything the squad could handle, snaring an eight-point lead early in the final period, before Central wrested control away from the home team for good with a string of consecutive points.
Trailing 44-36 with 7:08 remaining, the Rams went on blazing 17-2 run, to capture a 54-48 victory from Meriden to open the 2016-17 campaign.
Early in the game, when Maloney used extended pressure to force Central turnovers, the road team slowed things down just a bit, made better cross-court connections, and the miscues almost disappeared entirely for the Rams.
And once that pressure was beaten, lay-ups followed, and the Rams eventually took control of the hotly-contested bout.
Central trailed 32-24 at the half but were trailing by just five after three periods as the Rams’ defense began to shine over the second half of play.
“We knew we were going to get some pressure tonight and I have two guys that have played a lot of varsity, but the other guys have really not,” said Central coach Tim Barrette. “That pressure got to us [but] we regrouped at halftime. I actually said we were lucky to be down only eight [because] Maloney gave us a break from the [foul] line in the first half, that’s for sure.”
“We’ve could have been down 12 or 15 but we said, let’s cut it in half by the end of the third which is what we did.”
Maloney took 18 free throws in the first half while Central had just two over that time frame but the home squad missed nine of those attempts, keeping the Rams in close contention.
And the big men from Central, Jacob Collins, Jaekwon Spencer, and Alex Bernier, combined for 32 total rebounds – 12 of which came off the offensive glass.
Spencer flipped in team-highs of 21 points, 15 rebounds, and three assists while canning two three-pointers along the way while Collins – battling foul trouble the entire evening – contributed six points and six rebounds over the winning endeavor.
But Bernier had his finest moments on the court in a Central uniform when he kicked in 14 points and 11 rebounds, stopping several late offensive attacks by Maloney and scooping up several late offensive rebounds to keep the ball away from the home squad.
“We’re a fourth quarter team,” said Barrette. “We exerted our will on the glass in the fourth quarter and we stopped shooting threes if you noticed in the second half.”
Central missed 12 of 18 three-point attempts overall but the Rams, shooting just over 40-percent for the game, shot fifty-percent over the final 16 minutes of action and that made all the difference in the contest.
And amazingly, Central caught up in the free throw shooting battle, outshooting the home team from the line 18-6 during the second half as the Rams were in attack mode in the paint.
“We were open for threes because that’s what [Maloney] wants you to take,” said Barrette. “And I know we hit some of them but you’re never going to get to the free throw line and at the end of the game, we won the free-throw battle in the second half and that was the difference in the game.”
Maloney’s Jeff Massicotte was outstanding, hitting 15 points, and seemingly found a hoop whenever the home team needed it the most.
But even his offense effectiveness disappeared late in the game as the unit, who went a blazing 6-for-6 from the field over the second period of play, managed to shoot just 6-of-21 (28.6-percent) to end the challenge in the second half.
Dathan Hickey was also slick on defense (three steals, three points) and Isaiah Miller played his role as instigator – especially in the final period of play – to help frustrate Maloney.
But the play of Central’s Mike Lemke (eight points, two three-pointers) was instrumental in the contest as his hockey assists led to the pass that led to several eventual hoops.
Enforcer Eddie Irizarry (two points, two rebounds) was a disruptive influence on the court while Luis Diaz, Justus Fitzpatrick and Alex Lape all contributed something to the winning effort.
Off a floater by Spencer, Central opened the contest on a 7-1 push and to end the first period, the big man cashed in an offensive rebound for a put-back and hit a 3 to end the frame as Central gobbled up a 13-10 lead after eight minutes of action.
But fouls caught up with the visitors, as well as several missed three-pointers and turnovers – saw Maloney outscore Central 22-11 over the second tilt.
The Rams trailed by eight early in the second period as the full-court pressure forced Central into gaffes and miscues but off an 8-0 Central outburst – highlighted by an Irizarry hoop – the visitors regained the edge at 21-18 with 4:20 remaining before the half.
But a 10-0 Maloney push saw Central mishandle the ball again and the Spartans pushed the lead out to nine late before settling on a 32-24 halftime cushion.
The tempo slowed down a bit over the third stanza and even when the Spartans held a 37-26 lead with 6:29 left in the period, Beriner started to enforce his will on the court.
He ended the third with six straight points and assisted on one final basket by Lemke and with eight minutes remaining, Maloney’s edge was chopped to 41-36.
“Let’s be honest, he struggled in the first half,” said Barrette of Bernier. “He got called four or five travels and I so told him at halftime, ‘you’re a great player. You’re a walking double-double.’ I told him to just relax and do what he does. And then in the second half, he just stepped in, he made lay-ups, made a couple clutch free throws down in the end. He shook it off, he missed a couple [free throws], but he stepped to the line and made some big ones.”
Maloney stalled the game out to open the fourth period and when Central forced several misses, the home team’s offense went straight into the tank.
Trailing 44-36 with 7:08 to go, Central went on a blazing 11-0 run and Maloney didn’t call a composure timeout, the Rams kept putting the ball in the hoop.
With 3:57 to go, a put-back by Spencer gave Central the lead for good and when Maloney made the contest a free throw shooting affair late, the Rams did just enough to hang on and keep the ball away from the home squad.
Maloney kept misfiring from the field and even when Central missed six of eight free throws during one stretch, Bernier captured offensive rebounds to get additional chances at the line.
And after missing four straight charity shots, Bernier calmly canned two in a row with 20.6 seconds to go to complete the 17-2 push and propel the visitors to that 53-46 edge.
Maloney closed the gap to five late but one additional Bernier free throw closed out the scoring as Central came out of a tough environment with an impressive 54-48 win on the road to open scholastic play.