By MICHAEL LETENDRE
BRISTOL – On “Captain Connor Night,” the Bristol Central boys basketball team was not going to be denied a victory.
Playing with inspiration, and a little thing known as defense, the Rams were able to turn away a very good Southington squad by a 56-48 final in a Central Connecticut Conference crossover match-up from the Charles C. Marsh Gymnasium in Bristol on Tuesday, Jan. 2
Central (2-3) struggled early as the Knights (4-2) canned five of its first seven field goals, dictated pace and tempo, and the Rams found themselves trailing by ten points early in the second period.
Andrew Lohneiss (17 points) led the squad in scoring but Tim O’Shea (11) and Jeremy Mercier (seven) were the offensive spark plugs over the first eight minutes of the game – leading to a 16-point first period outburst for Southington.
“Let’s be honest, they execute well,” said Central coach Tim Barrette of Southington. “They were 4-1 for a reason. They execute well.”
But then Central brought a little defense to the fray in the second period, using a little 1-3-1 zone to get steals and once the Knights trailed on the scoreboard, the squad was never able to draw even again.
When the game’s tempo was played at a faster clip, that’s where Southington struggled.
After scoring 16 points in the first period, the Knights notched only a combined 17 points over the next two periods of action, a credit to Central’s defense.
“We were able to go to that 1-3-1, we sped them up and we turned them over,” said Barrette. “We got some stops. We went to a couple different zones and in the second half, I thought we did a great job in the 2-3 [zone], taking away their best players and rebounding the basketball.”
And a ton of that turnover from Southington was forced by Central senior guard Isaiah Miller.
Miller kicked in a game-high 18 points, nabbed seven rebounds, and scooped up eight steals – hitting the floor on several occasions – as he certainly played with zest and simply refused to give in until the contest was over.
“He’s our inspirational leader,” said Barrette of Miller. “He doesn’t back down. He’s tough. He only knows one speed. I think this game was extra special tonight because of the Connor Albert dedication. Isaiah, Dathan Hickey and Alex Bernier spent a lot of time with Connor in the hospital and at his home. So this game meant a little bit extra I think and they definitely played with a little chip on their shoulder to show that.”
Miller opened the evening with a three-pointer and Noah Plantamuro (nine points, three three-pointers) later followed up with one of his own but in-between that time, Southington scored 12 straight points to pick up a 12-6 edge with 1:03 left in the first.
The Knights led it 16-8 going into the second period but Miller’s steals started to get Central’s offense into gear.
Lohneiss canned a 3 with 4:09 to go in the half, making it a 21-15 contest but the visitors did not score again in the frame.
From there, Central went on a 10-0 run to capture the edge at the half.
Plantamuro and Miller splashed in threes, Jaekwon Spencer (13 points, six rebounds) canned a put-back and once Hickey (two points, three assists) added one final lay-up, Central rode up a 25-21 halftime cushion.
Spencer and Lohneiss each hit two three-pointers in the third, Bernier (seven points) scored the final four points for Central in the stanza but when Ryan Gesnaldo made a steal and lay-up for the Knights, the Rams’ lead remained at four (37-33) with eight minutes to play.
In the fourth, Plantumaro hit another three and Bernier attacked the hoop for a bucket but fouls finally caught up with the home team.
Four straight free throws chopped the deficit to 42-41 with 5:13 to go but Southington could never tie the thing up.
Off a time out, the Rams’ defense picked up, Central went on a 7-0 run and Miller finished off the burst with a steal and a hoop to make it 49-41 at the 3:14 mark of the fourth.
And late in the game, it became a free throw shooting contest with the Rams marching to the charity stripe.
Central made more than it missed, Southington got it as close as 51-46 with 1:03 to play but in the end, the Rams were able to wrangle up an eight-point win.
“We took away their best players in the fourth quarter,” said Barrette. “We made somebody else beat us and we were able to rebound the basketball better in the fourth than the third quarter. I know that one possession in the third, we gave up six offensive rebounds. They outworked us [on that play] but in the end, we took care of the basketball, we didn’t turn it over, and we were able to make enough free throws to close out the game.”
“I wouldn’t say it was pretty but [we made] enough to close out the game.”
In the end, it was about honoring the memory of “Captain Connor” – with several of his classmates and fans from Central dressing up in superhero costumes – and the Rams certainly made it a memorable one for Connor’s family who was in attendance at the game as the program rose to the occasion to win it.
“That’s what I said [to my players] tonight. If you can’t get up tonight to play for an occasion such as Connor and for his family, if you’re tired, how tired, really, are you?” said Barrette. “And I said to these guys, on a personal note, I know how it feels to lose a child and I said it’s probably the hardest thing any parent will ever have to do.”
“So I said, when you think you’re tired, you’re not tired. And we needed to grind this one out and we were able to do that. I thanked my seniors tonight because they showed some leadership out there on the floor.”
NOTES…The game was dubbed “Connor Strong Superhero Night” in honor of Connor Albert. Several South Side School students came for the game to celebrate Albert’s memory, the young man who battled bone cancer so bravely to the end. A 50/50 raffle was held and, all the proceeds ended up going to the Albert family through a generous donation.
Comments? Email mletendre@BristolObserver.com.