By MICHAEL LETENDRE
BRISTOL – Mike Palmieri, and the rest of the St. Paul Catholic boys basketball team, dropped the proverbial hammer on Coginchaug in the second round of the Class S Tournament on Thursday, March 9.
The junior guard scored 23 of his game high 25 points over the second half of play – notching 18 of those over the final 6:15 of the showdown – as the eighth rated Falcons turned away the ninth ranked Devils 54-49 from the Maltby Street Gymnasium in Bristol.
The win propelled St. Paul Catholic to a date against No. 1 Westbrook on the road in a quarterfinal showdown that was slated for Monday, March 13 – the beginning of the CIAC’s championship week.
Palmieri, frankly, was just sensational when the dinner bell rang in the fourth and final period of the event.
Because over the first half of play, the shooter went 15:53 between hoops from the first and third quarter, going just 1-for-3 from the field over the first sixteen minutes of action.
But over a stretch of three minutes-and-sixteen seconds in the fourth period, Palmieri kicked in 14 consecutive points – hitting three straight three pointers in the process – to turn a one-point Falcons’ edge into a 48-40 advantage with 2:59 to play.
“When you use the sports adage about throwing a team on your back, certainly in the fourth quarter, that was pretty classic from Mike Palmieri,” said St. Paul coach Steve Phelps.
And the Falcons needed every point Palmieri could generate because Coginchaug refused to go away and had the deficit chopped down to 52-49 with 4.6 seconds remaining.
Devils’ big man Hunter Jameson led the squad with 15 points, putting points on the board in every period, while Brandon Johnson notched 10 first period points before the St. Paul Catholic shut him down the rest of the way.
And outside of the 16-point first period of play, the Falcons’ defense did the job throughout the game – limiting the visitors to only 17 points over the second and third quarters combined.
But the Devils maintained the lead over the first three periods before the Falcons’ offense went into overdrive in the fourth.
“There was no part of the game that I felt frustrated with,” said Phelps. “I felt we worked our rear ends off on the defensive end. Coginchaug is well coached, they’re tournament tested – even though they had players graduate from a run to a state tournament final last year – those kids were in the program so they’re accustomed to winning.”
“It was going to be a battle [and] I did feel, and we tried to convince our kids, that [they’ve] got to grind, got to hang, the tide is going to turn, [and] we’re winning striking distance.”
To augment Palmieri’s scoring exploits, Tyler Arbuckle kicked in 10 points and snared six rebounds, Austin Jones added seven points and six rebounds while Darek Wiecki – a modern day Kurt Rambis every team craves – just missed a double-double with nine points and nine boards.
The Falcons’ bench only added three points to the fray but Brian Considine’s three-pointer midway through the second stanza was a huge contribution to go along with his five rebounds while Donovan Symes and Bo Arndt were pests on the defensive end and frustrated Coginchaug offensively all evening long.
“Brian Considine made huge rebounds,” said Phelps. “Donavan Symes doesn’t score but again, we give him the defensive assignment in the second half, we made some adjustments at halftime. I said let’s tweak it a little bit and we wanted Donavan to pressure the ball in the backcourt, like a one-man press. He did his job.”
“And Bo was the other guy [defensively] and both those guys had huge impacts on the game.”
Johnson was on fire to start the showdown scoring all ten of his points in a row and when his final bucket of the game fell through the net with 3:41 to play in the first, Coginchaug held its biggest edge of the game at 12-3.
“They’ve got out to, obviously, a very quick start,” said Phelps of Coginchaug.
The Devils canned five-of-seven shots over that stretch but from that point on in the showdown, Coginchaug hit only 10-of-51 field goals to close out the contest (19.6-percent) as the Falcons’ defense stepped up to the challenge.
To end the first, Arbuckle canned a three and made a steal for a hoop while Wiecki added a lay-up but at the end of one frame, Coginchaug led 16-10.
The Falcons trailed early in the second but drew even late in the frame when Arbuckle hit a three and with 1:51 to play, it was a 22-22 game.
But to end the half, Jameson hit a shot and with the defense scrambling, Coginchaug’s Tom Vallone slipped in a lay-up as the outfit led by four at the half, 26-22.
Palmieri and Jones flipped in three-pointers to open the third period but the Devils did just enough to maintain its lead throughout the stanza.
St. Paul Catholic’s defense allowed the Devils just seven points in the quarter but even as Considine found Palmieri for a period ending floater, the home team still trailed but just by a 33-32 tilt.
And then, it was all Palmieri in the fourth.Wiecki started the run with an offensive rebound and a put back to give the team its first lead of the game at 34-33 with 7:46 to play.
Palmieri then canned a three but Vallone hit a three, was fouled in the process, and when the player hit the free throw, it was a four-point play that tied the game up at 37-37 with just under six minutes left in regulation.
That was as close as Coginchaug would come to the lead again.
Palmieri then hit all the points of the Falcons’ ensuing 11-0 run and with 2:59 to play, St. Paul Catholic led 48-40 and the visitors were reeling.
“The guys on the floor had the presence of mind to find Mike,” said Phelps. “That gives us something that’s a big, big bonus.”
The Falcons then ran a little offense, used up some clock, and when Arbuckle made a big left-handed lay-up with 1:51 to go, the lead was stretched back out to eight again at 50-42.
Coginchaug missed a couple critical threes that would have made it a one-possession game late and when St. Paul Catholic was in the one-and-one bonus, Palmieri hit two charity shots to make it a 52-46 game with 33.2 seconds to play.
Another three was missed by the road team but when Considine misfired on a foul shot and Ryan Cross (eight points) added one last three for the Devils, the deficit was reduced to 52-49 with 4.6 seconds remaining.
But Palmieri was forced to the foul line one last time, added two more points to his tally, as St. Paul Catholic came-from-behind to advance in Class S tournament play by a five-point final, 54-49.
“I thought it was a great high school basketball game,” said Phelps. “And I thought our guys that maybe didn’t stuff the stats-sheet with offensive production, made major contributions in other areas which is – this time of the year – what you have to get.”
And as his players were leaving the locker room after the game, Phelps was happy to utter three little words that meant the season was continuing for the program:
“Four more days,” said Phelps with a grin.