By MICHAEL LETENDRE
BRISTOL – With less than 10 minutes left to play, the Bristol Central and Bristol Eastern boys basketball teams were deadlocked at 24-24 and the contest was there for the taking for either squad.
Eastern, who led by five early in the third quarter, saw the tempo of the game spin out of control late and once Central snared a couple steals – turning those miscues into points – the Rams were able to take control of the game in the fourth period.
Central was able to tally a double-digit lead midway through the fourth and in the end, held on to win a 41-30 Central Connecticut Conference South Patriot Division decision from the Charles C. Marsh Gymnasium.
It was the first of two city series battles between the schools.
The Rams (8-3) are still undefeated in the month of January but had to battle all the elements against the Lancers (3-6).
In the end, it was a 23-6 Central run that turned a 19-14 deficit into a 37-25 cushion with 3:43 to play when the Rams finally got some shots to fall to build a lead.
Eastern’s defense held Central to 4-of-20 shooting from the field early into the third period and clearly dictated the tempo over most of the three first quarters.
“We played very well in the first half,” said Eastern forward Mac Goulet. “We kept the intensity up. It was a low-scoring game. We just needed to execute more.”
Goulet led the charge with 13 points, eight rebounds, and three assists – all team highs for Eastern – while driving to the hoop to create several opportunities for his teammates.
Tyler Mason added four points and four rebounds, Jake Lafferty had three points, two rebounds, and two assists while Cam Tate made two steals and played excellent defense on Central standout Jaekwon Spencer (game-high 18 points), who was kept to his average on the evening.
“Cam’s performance was really good,” said Mason of Tate. “He’s a very lengthy player so he can make up a lot of ground with Jaekwon’s height and length. I think he played very well on him. He played aggressive, more than anybody can ever ask for.”
Brendon Gayle made three steals off the Eastern bench while Central’s Isaiah Miller had more than his share of steals, scoring eight points and playing his usual brand of tough defense.
Alex Lape made the start in the place of the injured Alex Bernier and came away with five points, Dathan Hickey (four points) was tremendous defensively, while Justus Fitzpatrick (three) and Noah Plantamuro (three) hit three-pointers along the way.
Central did have more than a couple good looks at the hoop over the first half but that Eastern defense only allowed six offensive rebounds all game long – limiting the home squad to just one shot through most of the event.
“It’s hard to play defense for 50 seconds or a minute and then come down and shoot after 10 seconds and not score. It gets frustrating,” said Central coach Tim Barrette. “We rushed some shots. We did have some good looks. Eastern, give them credit, did a great job defensively. I knew their game plan and they knew ours.”
“They did a good job, we played at their pace in the first half but I told my guys at halftime, if we get ahead, you don’t have to play at that pace anymore.”
Central forced Eastern into 13 second-half turnovers and that made an impact in the game. Overall, the Lancers had 19 miscues to Central’s 11.
The Rams rode out to a 7-2 edge to open the game but when D’Amato canned a three off the bench and Goulet found Lafferty for a hoop to end the first period scoring, it was 7-7 after eight minutes of play.
With 5:02 left before the half, Spencer flipped in a conventional three-point play to make it an 11-8 game in Central’s favor.
But the Rams went scoreless over the next five minutes of play as Eastern earned the lead midway through the second thanks to some stingy defense.
“If you look at us, we do that every game,” said Eastern coach Bunty Ray of the defense. “We play great defense. Defense is heart, it’s energy, [and] we do that every game. We game-plan, kids execute, try to limit what the other team does and I couldn’t be more proud of that defensive effort in this environment.”
“They’re very undersized, very undermanned, and that effort right there is paying attention to detail.”
Mason snared an offensive rebound and put it back, Goulet hit another lay-up and when Tate dropped in two free throws, Eastern scooped up a 14-11 lead with 43.5 seconds left before intermission.
“We did some great things offensively,” said Ray. “We made some back-door cuts, we screened well, we got some energy hoops.”
But Fitzpatrick drilled a huge three-pointer a couple seconds before the half as it was all knotted up at 14-14.
To open the third, Goulet dropped in a three and later found Mason for a hoop and with 6:35 to go in the third, Eastern led by five at 19-14.
But to end the third, Central used a 14-5 push as Central started to pick it up defensively and increase the pace of the showdown.
“We didn’t execute as much as we did in the first half and that’s what the game came down to, execution,” said Goulet.
Spencer flipped in multiple lay-ups, Hickey put one in and when Miller made a steal and scored with 1:35 left in the third period, Central’s lead grew to 28-24.
“We got a couple traps, a couple turnovers,” said Barrette. “We really didn’t get into transition where we thrive. They did a good job keeping us out of transition but I think, let’s give our guys credit too, we played defense probably tonight out of the 32 minutes for 25 of them.”
“And they only hit 30 [points] on the last shot of the game.”
Central’s defense then took a fearsome toll on a fatigued Eastern squad and when another Miller theft turned into a lay-up, the deficit grew to 35-25 with 5:21 to go.
“That’s been an Achilles heel for us,” said Ray of the turnovers. “We have to continue to work on that and we will. We’re going to get better. We’re going to get healthy. We’re going to get to full strength again. Hopefully, we’re going to get [injured forward Carter] Dziedzic back in the line-up and change some of our match-ups.”
Central’s lead eventually grew to 13 as the home team slowed the tempo with less than three minutes to go.
To end the game, Gayle made a steal and hoop, Miller hit two foul shots and when Adam Case made a slick pass to Bryce Curtin for a mid-range jumper for the final basket, Central won the contest by 11 points, 40-31.
The double-digit loss certainly did not reflect how close the game was over a back-and-forth affair.
“I went out there [after the game] and I told my kids I love them,” said Ray. “When you have kids that work that hard for you, my takeaway is, what an effort. When you come to work every day, if your kids can do that, it makes going to work every day [worth it]. I want to do better for them. Me and [my] coaching staff are going to work twice as hard now. We’re not going to sit here and say would’ve, should’ve, could’ve.”
“We get to play them again, we get [to play] other teams. Our goal is to make the tournament.”
And for the Rams, it was win number eight – the program’s seventh straight triumph in a row – meaning instant tournament qualification.
“One game at a time,” said Barrette of the undefeated Jan.. “I think next week is very difficult. We play a difficult Avon team, same type of game as tonight. It’s not going to be a high pace. Our guys are going to be grabbed, pushed. We’ve got to be ready for the physical game and then we have Hartford Public which will be a whole different mind-set Thursday night at home.”
“One game at a time. Tonight got us in the state tournament. We’re guaranteed. We got our eighth win. It’s something to celebrate.”
PHOTOS by JANELLE MORELLI