By MICHAEL LETENDRE
WESTBROOK – When your scholastic basketball squad loses to a superior talent, sometimes it’s best just to tip your cap and move on.
And that’s what the team from St. Paul Catholic was forced to do when the outfit dropped a tough 86-68 decision to top seeded Westbrook in the quarterfinal round of the CIAC Class S state tournament on Monday, March 13.
The loss for the eighth seeded Falcons ended their season at an excellent 17-7 while the Knights (24-2) advanced to the semifinals of the tournament bracket – squaring off against No. 12 Aerospace last Thursday from Polson Middle School in Madison.
Westbrook proved to be as advertised, and more, as the senior unit canned 11 three-pointers – making several from collegiate range – while missing only one of 16 free throws in a near masterful performance from the line.
Mistakes were few and points were aplenty for Westbrook, winning at home in its very cramped gym which was overflowing that made it feel like the game was out of a scene from the movie “Hoosiers.”
“Westbrook is a very good basketball team,” said St. Paul coach Steve Phelps. “They are very deserving of the No. 1 seed. My compliments to their coaching staff and their players for their effort and for the execution and talent they possess.”
Every time St. Paul Catholic made a mistake, it seemed as if the Knights scored a bucket off the miscue, quickly keeping and increasing their advantage.
And on several of those gaffes and turnovers the Falcons, Westbrook hit multiple three-point bombs and charity tosses.
“Very opportunistic,” said Phelps of Westbrook. “When we thought that we might have had them rattled, we either made a bad decision or they capitalized on the bad decision. That’s a sign of a team that advances.”
Westbrook’s 1-2 punch of Liam Bell and Cory Muckle proved to be the ultimate knockout as the duo scooped up a combined 54 points which included seven three-pointers, hitting all 15 foul shots the team ended up taking.
“Those two kids are (very talented),” said Phelps of Muckle and Bell. “That Liam Bell kid made some very, very, very difficult shots. [He had] people in his face. At some point of time, I think you’ve got to kind of swallow and commend the other team for what they accomplished.”
“But it doesn’t change the sadness that’s within our locker room.”
Austin Herzy also canned three-pointers at the worst time against the Falcons – hitting four overall and generating 14 points to compliment the Bell/Muckle duo.
St. Paul Catholic’s Tyler Arbuckle had his best game offensively of the postseason as he dropped in a playoff career high of 21 points while Austin Jones racked up 17 in his final scholastic contest.
Mike Palmieri, recently named an All NVL selection, struggled offensively – credit Westbrook’s stingy defensive attack – as he rang up 12 points, nine of which came during the second half.
The Knights’ zone was tough as its 2-3 set-up did a terrific job leaking out to the Falcons’ shooters and stuffed the middle enough to force most of the visitors’ shots from the outside.
And then when Westbrook wasn’t slinging up threes, its high-low offense got the team several high percentage lay-ups and put-backs to help pad the lead.
St. Paul Catholic’s Darek Wiecki played extremely well, nabbing several offensive rebounds but found life at the free throw line miserable.
So did the rest of the team that evening.
Overall, the Falcons had 33 attempts but could not capitalize as the outfit missed 16 free throws as points from the line were at a premium.
Matt Garry added 11 points off the pine while Bo Arndt and Donavan Symes were both pests on defense once again for the Falcons.
Brian Considine added a hoop while Tom Houle saw game action as well.
Thirteen first-half turnovers led to multiple baskets by the Knights but off a Wiecki lay-up and a three by Arbuckle, St. Paul Catholic picked up a 5-3 edge about 53 seconds into the first stanza.
But the Knights turned defense into offense, going on a 13-2 run over the next the next 4:10 to pick up a 16-7 lead and never looked back.
Late in the first, Garry cashed in a baseline jumper and when Arbuckle canned a bank shot at the buzzer, the Falcons trimmed the Knights edge to 18-11 after one completed frame.
St. Paul Catholic dropped the Westbrook lead down to two possessions over critical portions of the second quarter but every time the road team chopped the deficit to five – like when Palmieri hit a three with 4:25 remaining in the first half to make it a 27-22 game – the Knights answered with offense to add to their cushion.
From that point in the game, when the Falcons could have crept even closer to the lead to end the half, the team missed six of seven free throws the stalled the offense.
And when Herzy made an offensive rebound put-back for one final basket, Westbrook wrangled up a 34-27 halftime push.
To open the third, Arbuckle hit another jumper and at 34-29, the Falcons were looking to dent that deficit even further.
However, that five-point deficit might as well been 50 at that point.
From there, the Knights went back to its defense, rolling up an imposing 52-30 cushion on the power of an 18-1 run with 3:36 left in the third.
To end the period, Arbuckle hit two field goals but with eight minutes to go, St. Paul Catholic was looking up at a 59-43 deficit.
Jones zipped in six early points in the fourth and when one of his three-point found pay-dirt, the Westbrook edge was only 65-53 with 4:33 remaining and the Falcons were slowly getting back into the flow.
But that’s as close as St. Paul Catholic would get as the squads traded points the rest of the way.
When Jones hit his last 3, that deficit remained at 12 with 1:48 remaining and the 75-63 score was going to be just too much to overcome.
To end the event, Palmieri dropped in one last three but a dunk by Herzy with 33 seconds remaining put the icing on the cake for the Knights as the home team advanced in the Class S tournament with the 18-point victory.
The Falcons bowed out of the season with an impressive 17 victories, the Naugatuck Valley League Copper Division champions, a majority of its squad coming back for next season and plenty of hope for the 2017-18 campaign.
The event marked the final scholastic basketball games for seniors Eli Kennedy, Tom Houle, stats guru Jack Bator, and NVL All Cooper Team selection Austin Jones.
“March is a great time of the year and there’s an awful lot of joy and excitement in the month of March,” said Phelps. “And for this thing to come down to March 13 and for me to have to talk to you guys about concession speeches and how proud I am…I’m just not ready for that.”
“We’re all in the same position, whenever you get eliminated…I just think tonight, we were defeated by a team that played better than us and that’s not a concession [and] that’s not an embarrassment.”
Comments? Email mletendre@BristolObserver. com.