By MICHAEL LETENDRE
BRISTOL – Last season, at Bristol Central Holiday Tournament, the host squad ran Wolcott out of the building by a 75-38 final, posting its first win of the campaign.
But fast forward one year later, the Eagles were a year older and a whole lot better.
And Wolcott nearly led from wire to wire as Central dropped a tough 73-62 decision in the opening round of the BCHS Holiday Tournament.
There was plenty of back-and-forth early in the bout as the teams were tied up at 9-9 with 5:21 left to play in the first period.
However, Wolcott started to take control, nabbed the ball off its own misses and late in the tilt, it was a 23-13 lead for the visitors.
“At halftime, we talked about, really, that nine-point deficit was because they had 10 extra possessions,” said Central coach Tim Barrette. “We got the shots we wanted them to take. We got them to actually miss in that first half but once they missed, they got the offensive rebound. The possession is not over.”
“In the scouting [report], it said they followed their shot well and they definitely did that in the first half.”
Central’s Donovan Clingan nearly captured a triple-triple-double with 19 points, 14 rebounds, and seven blocked shots while Sean Wininger added 12 and Shane Ouellette zipped in 10 to lead the squad.
Senior Ryan Rodriguez showed plenty of leadership and grit but was hobbled by an injury, adding six points to the effort.
Wolcott’s Elmin Redzepagic flipped in a game-high 21 points, Jack Drewry had 16, while teammate Jeffrey Nicol scored 12 as each and every senior member of the team contributed something to the winning effort.
“They work hard, give them some credit,” said Barrette of Wolcott. “They had made an open statement that they outworked every time and I’ll tell you what, we saw that, especially in the first half.”
Wininger canned two threes over that 9-9 stalemate, Wolcott went on a 14-4 dash but a late hoop from Rodriguez made it a 23-15 contest through one period.
To open the second, a Wininger free throw and another lay-in from Rodriguez chopped the deficit to 23-18 with 7:11 left in the first half.
However, the Eagles worked the deficit back up to 10 as a free throw by Drewey made it 31-21 with 4:59 remaining in the second frame.
“It felt like we were chasing all night,” said Barrette. “No matter what we did, they seemed to answer the bell. That’s a veteran led team. We went man [defense], they scored. We gave up an offensive rebound. We went to the specialty defense in the zone and they hit the shot. The kid [number 10] we wanted to shoot then made the next shot.”
“So everything in the first half we threw at them, they countered it with something that, you know, they made the shot to get us out of that.”
The Rams couldn’t get any closer than eight the rest of the half and at intermission, it was a 36-27 game with the Eagles on top.
“Offensively, we just had too many empty possessions in the second quarter,” said Barrette. “We cut it to five but we never could push it to tie the game up. Then we gave up a couple second shots and foul shots and now you’re chasing nine points at the end of the half.”
Things only got worse from there as Wolcott opened the third title with a 20-4 run and with just under 3:30 left in the period, the visitors were on top by a 56-31 push.
It was 62-40 entering the final quarter and at the 5:11 mark of the tilt, Wolcott kept up the momentum with 70-46 cushion in hand.
But, in a matter of 3:30, the Rams nearly turned the contest into a two-possession game with just under 45 seconds to play.
A 16-0 run by Central saw the deficit chopped to 70-62 thanks to big 3-point hoops from Victor Rosa, Ouellette, and Nate Rosa as the bench turned up the intensity.
“The future is bright. It’s very obvious,” said Barrette. “In the beginning of the year, you’re playing your seniors, giving them an opportunity because they deserve it. They made it through the program, they deserve the opportunity to show you what they do. But the youngsters have done a good job early on to definitely show the energy I’m looking for.”
“I think that’s a big difference. I don’t know if they know any better yet but they play really hard when they’re in there.”
It was simply too little, too late as Wolcott was able to pull out a 73-62 win – advancing to the finals of the tournament to face Greenwich, a 86-79 double-overtime victory over South Windsor.
“Listen, that run there at the end, I was proud of them in that last two minutes,” said Barrette. “That was versus Wolcott’s varsity in the beginning of that run. They did a decent job. They got the ball into to Donovan and really pressured the ball.”
“Like I said, the future’s bright but, at the end of the night, if you lose, it doesn’t feel good.”