By MICHAEL LETENDRE
BRISTOL – The Bristol Central boys basketball squad has been a second half team this season so when the outfit was trailing Wilton in its CIAC Division II second round encounter on Friday, March 9, just about everyone in the Charles C. Marsh gymnasium in Bristol knew there was going to be a late game response.
And the Warriors took it on the chin as Central turned a third quarter, double-digit deficit into a four-point edge with 2:42 left to play.
But several empty possessions didn’t allow the Rams to stretch out its lead and when Wilton retook control of the game, Central couldn’t make one final comeback.
In the end, a lay-up by Antonio Brancato (28 points) gave the visitors the lead for good as No. 13 Wilton defeated No. 3 Bristol Central 63-56.
The Warriors (15-7) led for most of the first half and all of the third quarter but when the Rams (18-6) finally reassumed control of the contest, every lost or missed possession turned the momentum straight back to the visitors.
“We didn’t play hard enough to be honest,” said Bristol Central coach Tim Barrette. “We didn’t get enough loose balls tonight. I told our guys I’ve had nightmares with loose balls rolling away that [the opponents] grab and hit a three on. I happened four times tonight.”
“That’s 12 points [and] that’s a huge difference in a game this close.”
Central had trouble against Wilton’s zone defense as Central took twenty-five 3s in the game, making eight of those attempts.
Defensively, the Rams forced Wilton into misses but it seemed like each and every time the Warriors nabbed an offensive rebound, something good happened.
Whether it was a three-point bomb or two free throws, Wilton’s nine offensive boards proved to be a difference maker throughout the event in terms of second chance points.
But trailing 40-28 with 2:18 left in the third, Central made its run.
A 19-2 dash, highlighted by a blazing three-pointer from Isaiah Miller (15 points, five 3-pointers, two rebounds, six assists), gave Central a 47-42 lead with 3:43 remaining in the showdown.
The Warriors cut it to one before Jaekwon Spencer (game-high 29 points, nine rebounds) generated a three-point play to make it a four-point cushion at 52-48 with 2:42 left in regulation.
But from there, missed free throws and turnovers doomed Central and down the stretch, Brancato and Scott Cunningham (22 points) combined for seven quick points.
And with 1:05 left, Wilton led by three points, 55-52 and the Warriors finished the game with a 15-4 run.
“We didn’t grab a rebound when we were up four,” said Barrette. “We didn’t grab the rebound and because of that, they end up hitting a three and coming back. And they hit their free throws in the fourth quarter, give them credit. They made a lot from the line and we were 4-of-8, I believe, in that fourth quarter.”
“That’s not good enough…”
To open the game, Spencer and Noah Plantamuro (three points, four rebounds, five assists) hit back-to-back threes as Central led 6-0 just 6:12 into things.
But from there, Brancato flipped in hoop after hoop.
He scored 13 of Wilton’s 15 first period points and off an 18-3 run, the visitors led 20-9 with 6:13 left to go in the half.
“They’re smart,” said Barrette of Wilton. “They play hard…they don’t take a play off and tonight, when we took a play off, they exposed us and they scored three points on us every time we did.”
Central, due to miscues and gaffes, scored just six additional points to end the half as Alex Lape (five points, four rebounds) hit for three points and Miller canned a three.
And when the horn sounded at intermission, Wilton’s lead was 24-15 as Central had missed 13-of-18 field goals attempts.
“Unforced errors led to a very difficult offensive first half,” said Barrette.
Central and Wilton continued to go back-and-forth in the third period but the Rams were only able to chop the deficit to seven midway through the stanza.
A free throw from Kyle Maatallah with 3:36 to go in the third frame made it a 35-24 game but a 9-5 Central dash – including two triples from Miller, a Ryan Rodriguez charity toss and two Jaekwon Spencer foul shots – made it a 40-33 game.
Cunningham canned the final hoop of the third period as Central trailed 42-33 but the Rams were poised for a big fourth period jaunt.
“We’ve been here before,” said Barrette. “And they [my players] said we’ve been down way more than this. Eventually, that can come back to bite you but part of that is we haven’t executed against the zone as well as we should have all year. That falls on me, I won’t blame it on the guys. It’s not like we don’t practice it.”
“But it seems like the lights come on, it’s a little different than when we’re playing against the scout team in practice. We don’t move the ball well enough, we don’t catch the ball well enough when it is passed to us and tonight, how many times did we throw the ball into the stands?”
Brancato hurt his ankle early in the fourth tilt and in a matter of 4:17, Central’s offense went into overdrive.
The Rams notched 14 straight points as Miller hit two threes in the comeback and with 3:43 to play, Central regained control of the period at 47-42.
“This is his atmosphere,” said Barrette of Miller. “He played his heart out. He left it on the floor. I couldn’t ask for any more. He rolled his ankle in the first minute of the game if you saw him limping around. He sucked that up all night. He did a great job.”
But quickly, Miller drew his fifth foul and had to leave the game via disqualification.
With Brancato back in the mix, and Central leading 52-48 at the 2:42 mark of the fourth, Wilton made its collective move.
Central’s Dathan Hickey (two rebounds) missed on the front end of a 1-and-1 foul shooting situation, Cunningham drained a 3 and when Alex Bernier committed an offensive foul with 1:59 remaining, Central was clinging to a 52-51 lead.
Brancato then flipped in the go-ahead lay-up and when Spencer missed two consecutive free throws, Brancato grabbed the miss and was quickly fouled.
He canned two free throws, Spencer then threw the ball away on the ensuing possession, and when Plantamuro drew a questionable foul off an inbound play, it was two more free throws for the Warriors.
Maatallah managed to hit two additional foul shots and with 55.6 seconds left, Wilton ran up a 57-52 cushion.
“That’s five possessions right there when you have 52 [points] and you have the lead,” said Barrette. “It’s not characteristic of a senior led team but also, that’s when we didn’t have our point guard [Miller]. He had fouled out at that point.”
The deficit grew to as many as eight with 27 seconds left as Barrette emptied his bench and got his senior crew an ovation as they left their final game.
In the end, Central fell 63-56 as the Rams ended the campaign at 18-6.
It was the final game for seniors Dathan Hickey, Noah Plantamuro, Alex Bernier, Alex Lape, Brett Kempton, Isaiah Miller and Jaekwon Spencer.
Comments? Email mletendre@BristolObserver.com.