By MICHAEL LETENDRE
HARTFORD – The Bristol Central boys basketball team isn’t afraid of the big game.
And the Rams were in the middle of another epic challenge on Saturday, Feb. 24 from the Central Connecticut Conference Boys Basketball Tournament against No. 5 Enfield.
And it was a barnburner from the start as the teams combined to attempt 56 3-point field goals but in the end, it’s was Central’s inside-outside attack that paid off handsomely, leading to a 74-69 victory for the fourth ranked Rams from the Babe Allen Field House on the campus of Bulkeley high school in Hartford.
Central (18-4) when to a tight eight-man rotation and everyone contributed to the winning effort.
Jaekwon Spencer blasted in 27 points and 16 rebounds but also contributed four assists and helped to reject four shots in another great all-around game.
And to augment that outstanding effort from Spencer, Alex Bernier came off the pine – in the role that we’ve seen former Boston Celtics great Kevin McHale play down the street at the Hartford Civic Center back in the 1980s so many times – and flipped in 18 points and snared 12 rebounds, getting four of those off the offensive glass.
Bernier scored nine fourth quarter points – going 5-for-5 from the foul line during crunch time – to help salt the game away.
“He just plays his tail off, that’s the easiest way to say it” said Central coach Tim Barrette of Bernier. “A lot of times, he takes some bad shots and you want to yell at him and you can’t because he’s already worked to get the ball back. He has a non-stop motor and he was obviously huge for us in the second half.”
“That’s the Alex Bernier we’ve been waiting for.”
Dathan Hickey’s defense on Jadon Archer (31 points) made a difference in the second half as the high-scoring forward had only two third period points and just 11 overall in the second half.
“They came out hot,” said Barrette of Enfield. “Archer is a hell of a player. Dathan guarded some good players but his ability to shoot the ball from twenty-six feet out makes him a different guard because of his ability and free range that his coach gives him. He’s a good player but I thought we did a pretty good job after the first 15 points he had. He really had to work for everything he got after that.”
Hickey’s contributions offensively included seven points, four rebounds, and three assists while big Alex Lape added four points, four rebounds, and two assists.
Noah Plantamuro’s (11 points) three three-pointers were critical as he dropped in two of those over a 90 second stretch to open the third period while point guard Isaiah Miller did a little of everything on the court.
Miller posted seven points, eight rebounds and nearly half-a-dozen assists while Ryan Rodriguez and Justus Fitzpatrick each contributed something defensively off the bench.
Enfield (18-4) decided to live and die by the three-pointer and that shot ultimately failed the squad.
The Raiders canned only 7-of-37 three-point bombs – launching those almost at will – and when those misses began to pile up, especially late, that’s when Central took over the game.
At one point, as Enfield fired away from deep, the squad went nearly 18 minutes without hitting a 3-pointer.
Archer dropped in 20 of his points before the halftime break while Wyatt Raymond (18 points) and Kyle Menaker (11) scored in double figures for the Eagles.
Each squad held a double-figure lead in the contest. Enfield grabbed a 21-11 push with 7:50 to go in the second period while Central’s 62-50 edge with 5:17 to play was the biggest lead by either squad that day.
The Rams trailed 32-31 at the half and while the first two quarters had its peaks and valleys, Central went right to work with a 10-0 third period run and held the lead for good from that point forward in the game.
“I told our guys at halftime we are right where we want to be because we’re a second half team,” said Barrette. “So being down one at the half is not a problem for us because we know we’re going to play better in the third and fourth [quarters] anyways.”
Five lead changes saw the squads go back-and-forth early in the contest and when Spencer made a steal and threw down a viscous dunk, Central nabbed a 4-3 lead with 5:37 left to play in the first period.
Archer then canned two long-range threes to start Enfield’s 13-2 run but a three-point play from Bernier and a hoop by Spencer cut the deficit to two (13-11).
However, the Eagles then connected on eight straight points and when Archer hit his fourth three of the showdown with 7:50 to go in the second frame, Enfield’s stretched its lead out to 21-11.
And when Menaker drained another three for the Eagles, making it a 24-15 game, the Central defense didn’t allow another field goal to fall through the hoop for nearly five minutes.
A blistering 16-2 run by the Rams – capped by a Bernier tip-in and a three from Plantamuro – saw Central scoop up a 31-26 edge with 3:00 left to play in the first half.
Enfield ended the half with six straight points and quickly, Central fell behind by one.
Plantamuro drained two threes during Central’s 10-0 run to open the third – giving the Rams a 41-32 lead with 5:31 left in the stanza.
“They had some guys that missed some shots,” said Barrette of Enfield. “It’s not easy shooting at Bulkeley and I’ll tell you, we recovered from a 1-for-12 first half from three-point land. We took that initial run from them and we battled all the way back.”
Raymond hit several consecutive shots for Enfield midway through the third but Central kept at least a two-possession cushion for the entire period thanks to three-point plays from Spencer and Plantamuro.
And with eight minutes to go, Central’s lead was 49-43.
Enfield chopped the deficit to five midway through the fourth but off a Central 9-2 push – with all the points scored by Spencer – the Rams held its biggest lead of the game at 62-50 with 5:17 remaining to play.
But the Eagles made its collective move as Archer and Raymond combined for 19 points in the frame to keep things close.
In fact, Menaker hit a lay-up with 1:33 left and, in what turned into a 17-7 spurt for the Eagles, Enfield was trailing just 69-67.
Central then pumped the breaks and Enfield’s late three-pointers did not find pay dirt.
“We just needed to get a stop,” said Barrette. “They hit a couple threes in a row or a lay-up or an and-1 and we couldn’t get a stop. Five possessions in a row, we didn’t get a stop so the lead kept shrinking. Then we took a couple ill-advised shots on our end. But winning games, we haven’t played a lot of tight games this year. We’ve been up and we’ve been able to finish.”
“Today, we were obviously in a different situation in a different environment.”
Spencer then threw in a hoop and Archer followed by adding two free throws but Central’s 71-69 edge with 47.5 seconds kept the Rams on top.
Central then slowed the game down, forcing Enfield to foul as Plantamuro and Miller hit late free throws to maintain the lead in the game.
“We made some big free throws down the stretch to seal the game,” said Barrette.
With ten seconds left, Archer missed his final 3, Miller hit a foul shot to make it a five-point game with four seconds left and, in the end, Bristol Central was headed to the semifinal round of the CCC Tournament via the 74-69 win with a date against the state’s best team in the form of top ranked East Catholic the following week.
“I told these guys Tuesday night is something they’ve never seen before,” said Barrette. “It’s going to be sold out in here and we’ve got a shot at the state’s number one team.”
NOTES…Central lost in the semifinal round to East Catholic 74-40 on Tuesday, Feb. 27. Jaekwon Spencer led Central with 15 points as the Rams fell to 18-5 on the year.