By MICHAEL LETENDRE
BRISTOL – After not scoring a single point over his last two games, Bristol Eastern boys basketball center Tom Gonzales was apparently saving it up for the final possession of the game in the squad’s city series showdown against Bristol Central.
And in overtime, Gonzales hit the biggest shot of his scholastic career.
All tied up and with just a few seconds remaining on the clock in overtime, Eastern point guard Rod Jenkins dumped the ball down to the Lancers’ center, banking the shot off the glass and in as time expired – sending the Eastern crowd into a delirious frenzy – and propelling the home squad to a come-from-behind 55-53 win from the Thomas M. Monahan Gymnasium in Bristol on Friday, Jan. 21.
But it looked all for naught as Central was pushing for another overtime session when Aaron Collins (six points) drained a three-pointer with 15 seconds left in the first extra frame to tie things up at 53-53.
That’s where Jenkins (game-high 28 points, five rebounds, four assists, four steals) took the ball – guarded by the lanky Jaekwon Spencer (13 points) – and watched the clock tick down.
With five seconds left, he made his move, slashed into the paint, and when the defense committed to the point guard, Jenkins flipped the ball over to Gonzales (career-tying 15 rebounds) and he calmly sank the game winning shot.
“Here’s a kid that hasn’t scored in two games,” said Eastern coach Bunty Ray of Gonzales. “He’s always a force in the game and I think he was feeling it. I think he was feeling the pressure of having to score some baskets. And to get the big one at the end, we went into the locker room after the game and I said ‘Tom, no matter what happens in your career, you’re always going to have that in your back pocket that you made a shot to win an Eastern/Central game.’”
“What a great finish [and] concentration under those circumstances. That might look like an open look but you know what, you’ve still got to catch it, square up and put it in.”
Eastern started the contest off with an 8-2 run before Central, getting six points from Isaiah Miller (team high 14 points, four three-pointers) went on a 12-2 jaunt to capture a 14-10 lead after one period.
But Central scored just two points in the second quarter as the Eastern defense did the trick and when Jenkins added a free throw with 40.5 seconds to play in first half, Eastern led 17-16 at the break.
The Rams dropped in 18 third period points to
retake command of the game and when Spencer closed out the tilt with a conventional three-point play, the road squad regained the lead at 34-31 with the fateful fourth period on tap.
That’s when all the fun really started.
Central opened the fourth with an impactful 12-5 run over the first 2:25 to put Eastern on the brink.
And the game looked like it was never headed for overtime as the Rams surged in front by a 10 point lead – thanks in part to Collins first three-pointer of the game with 5:35 to play in regulation.
That made it a 46-36 contest but Central would never score again in the fourth period.
“Listen, they made big shots,” said Ray of Central. “They went inside and out. Pick your poison. We got to their shooters and they went inside. When we went inside, they made some [outside] shots. They haven’t been making shots lately against zone pressure and I think our mixture of defense at the end of the [fourth] quarter, we gave them a zone look and then we went to man.”
“I think that kind of threw them off a little, didn’t make them comfortable, and then we went into a couple traps just so they wouldn’t sit.”
Doom and demise followed as Central turnovers, missed shots and a resurgent Eastern offense forced a stalemate when regulation came to a close.
“We turned the ball over five times in the last three minutes up [by] ten,” said Central coach Tim Barrette. “Five turnovers in the last three minutes of the game [in regulation] when you’re up 10 is inexcusable. We gave the game away.”
And slowly but surely, the Lancers started to hit hoops off those Central gaffes to get within striking distance of the lead.
Gonzales, who scored all his points over the last 13:17 of the showdown, made a put back of a miss to chop the deficit to eight.
Then off a miss by the Rams, Jenkins slithered into the lane for another lay-up and suddenly, it was a 46-40 contest with 3:25 to go in the fourth as Eastern’s defense began to pick it up.
“Turning them over in situations gave us momentum and gave us easy baskets,” said Ray. “It was a matter of down the stretch of who was going to make fewer mistakes. And [Central] made them, we made them, they made shots, we made shots, it was a back and forth.”
Central again missed and when Naimer Heyigler, getting into his first varsity game, nabbed a rebound and quickly attacked the hoop, getting fouled, the youngster hit a free throw to get Eastern closer at 46-41 with 2:41 remaining in the fourth.
The Rams still couldn’t find the basket and when the Lancers regained control of the ball, the home team attempted to make it a one-possession contest.
But Jenkins was called for an offensive foul with 2:14 to play and the turnover looked to be a costly one.
Again, the Rams tried to take time off the clock but came up empty on the scoreboard and when Jenkins canned another dagger 3 with 1:29 showing on the clock, Central was still in control but reeling at 46-44.
“You are up 10, where you don’t need to shoot or it’s a layup only and we’re trying to force passes into tight windows,” said Barrette. “Yeah, we’re trying to bleed the clock, but we had opportunities to get layups if we swung the ball and we caught the ball and we didn’t force things. You can’t turn the ball over five times in the final three minutes and win a basketball game, not in this type of rivalry game.”
Another empty possession led to Eastern’s Carter Dziedzic (13 points, three rebounds) connecting on one of two free throws and with 55.1 seconds left, the deficit was cut all the way down to 46-45.
Ten seconds later, Eastern forced Collins on the free throw line for a one-and-one situation but off a miss, Eastern had the ball in hand and was looking for a game-winning score.
But a rushed shot gave Central additional chances at the other end with a slim lead in hand.
With just seconds left in regulation, the Rams missed a shot and Gonzales snared the ball and threw it all the way down the court.
Eastern’s Jake Violette (five points, three rebounds, three assists) had broken away from the pack, sprinted down the court, and got his mitts on the ball but took an off-balanced shot that missed – forcing an overtime period between the two squads.
The Lancers won the tap and 12 seconds later, Carter was fouled shooting a three-pointer and when the sophomore hit all three of his charity shots, the home squad led it by three, 49-46.
“Now you’re not grinding out possessions,” said Ray of scoring first in overtime. “To tell you the truth, we’re not strong handling the ball across the board. We lost to Southington the same way but we figured out a way to win [against Central]. More guys showed to the ball, Rod controlled and dictated the tempo a little bit more, we didn’t force anything [though] we had a couple ill-advised shots.”
Collins countered with a foul shot, Jenkins dropped in two of his own and with 2:44 to go, Eastern stretched its lead to 51-47.
Central then missed a shot but off an Eastern turnover, Spencer came up big with a three and at the 1:21 mark of the overtime period, Eastern was clinging to a 51-50 lead.
But the Lancers struck back with a Carter hoop off a slick feed from Tyler Mason (two points, two rebounds, two assists) with less than a minute left but when Collins kicked in his final three of the game, the score was retied at 53-53 with 15 seconds left.
“Listen, I’m happy the way we had some resolve,” said Barrette. “We executed that inbounds play to tie the game when Collins hit the three. I can’t ask for a better play that we execute. We got the look we wanted.”
Moments later, Jenkins found Gonzales for the game-winner and the student section emptied out on to the floor in celebration as Eastern won it by two.
“The last play of the game, I told the guys I don’t fault anyone,” Barrette said. “We obviously have to have all eyes on Roderick. He made a great pass. A good basketball player makes a good basketball play and he finishes it.”
“What happened before that was what lost us the game, not the last play of the game. What lost it for us was the five turnovers in the final three-and-a-half minutes [of regulation].”
It was a huge win for Eastern, now 4-8, who desperately needed a victory to start a state tournament push.
“They’re high school kids, time will tell,” said Ray of the momentum that came with the victory. “Somebody asked me right away, ‘let’s use this.’ Of course, I told the team let’s use it. But talk is talk [and] we still have a lot of work to do. I want them to enjoy it but it’s almost like the twenty-four hour rule. We have to clean up a lot of things.”