By MICHAEL LETENDRE
BRISTOL – After giving away a double-figure lead, the Bristol Eastern boys basketball squad had a dogfight on its hands against Lewis Mills in the opening round of the Bristol Eastern Holiday Classic on Saturday, Dec. 28 from the Thomas M .Monahan Gymnasium in Bristol.
But the Lancers made big fourth period stops, tied the game late after trailing by five and faced a 45-45 stalemate with 7.8 seconds to go in regulation.
And which veteran sharpshooter would attempt the game-winning basket for the Lancers?
Try sophomore Elijah Borgelin, who attacked the lane with zest and flipped in the game-winning lay-up from the right side of the hoop with two seconds to play as the Lancers picked up a 47-45 come-from-behind win to move to the championship round of the tournament.
“I mean, it felt great but I was glad my teammates were there,” said Borgelin of the game winning hoop. “We fought back in the game and I’m proud of us.”
Eastern (2-1) forced a half-dozen turnovers early in the game as Mills (0-3) trailed 14-3 with 2:16 left in the first period.
“I think it was more of our defensive energy, the way we were able to get some turnovers, get some easy baskets, move the basketball, and it was everything that we said we wanted to do in pregame,” said Eastern coach Bunty Ray of his squad’s early start.
It was the first game back at Bristol Eastern for Mills’ head coach Ryan Raponey, the longtime JV and assistant coach for the Lancers.
And his team came to fight as the squad chipped away at the 11-point deficit, made it a five point game at the half and then ramped up 22 third quarter points to turn an eight point deficit into a three point lead by the completion of the stanza.
“With our team, we feed off the energy of knocking down shots,” said Raponey. “You could see the defensive intensity pick up. In the second quarter, we were actually able to pick up our defensive intensity, did a little better job on the boards and even though we weren’t making shots, we were able to stay in the ball game.”
“And then we continued that defense and then we came out and started executing a little better offensively [in the third quarter].”
After hitting 12 three-pointers against Bristol Central in their previous game, the Spartans started the contest against the Lancers missing six-of-seven shots from downtown and off five straight points by Eastern’s Trini Otero (14 points), plus an and-1, the home team led by 11.
But pesky Mills slowly began to get into an offensive rhythm, the Lancers missed several makeable hoops and off a 15-7 run by the Spartans – capped by a lay-up from reserve Tony Martinotti – the road team trailed just 21-18 with 1:51 left in the half.
“I turned to Coach [D.J.] Parent at one point and I said, ‘This game has nothing to do with defense right now.’ We were playing good defense but we were just not doing anything offensively,” said Ray. “And Mills just threw one little wrinkle in that shouldn’t have bothered us as much as it did. We worked on it [but] the kids just froze up. We just didn’t attack, we just didn’t get downhill, we stayed on the perimeter, and we didn’t throw the ball inside like we should have.”
“When we made our run, the ball went inside and then out and we were able to free up our shooters. Our guards made bad decisions tonight.”
But off one final basket by Otero, Eastern’s halftime lead was 23-18 and when the Lancers’ opened the third period with a three from Jordyn Tate, the home team’s edge was 26-18.
Drew Fries hit a bucket midway through the stanza but when shots didn’t fall again for Eastern, Mills capitalized with five three-pointers over the final 4:25 of the third and when Matt Geissler’s 3 at the buzzer swished in, Mills led 40-37 going into the final eight minutes of action.
“We were getting good looks,” said Raponey. “We were trusting our teammates. When the ball moves around, snaps around and we find the open man, we are a very dangerous team. Unfortunately, from time to time as with any team, sometimes it sticks, it doesn’t move as fluidly, and sometimes the cuts aren’t as sharp.”
“Towards the end of the game, I feel like at times we were a little stagnant but I thought in that third quarter, we were snapping the ball around, moving it around, finding the open man and playing some good solid basketball.”
Geissler opened the fourth with an offensive rebound and put-back and with 7:08 to play, the Spartans held its biggest lead of the night at 42-37.
“The name of the game that was really disheartening for us was when Mills took a shot, we just watched it as they came in and grabbed (the ball),” said Ray. “They beat us to a lot of loose balls and turned them into second chance opportunities. They are a very patient offense so when they move the ball around, you’re digging in and playing defense for a long time and if you don’t get the ball, they’re going up the other end and, if you’re not making shots, it becomes a game you really don’t want to play in.”
However, over that final 7:08, Mills was limited to just three points as the Spartans’ attack just didn’t produce any offense late.
Eastern regained the lead midway through the fourth as the Elijahs – Parent and Borgelin – combined for six straight points as the Lancers led 43-42 with 2:24 to play.
But the Spartans’ James Nestor buried a huge three with 2:09 to go as Mills reassumed the lead at 45-43.
Tate followed up with a huge lay-up from the left baseline and with the score all tied up at 45-45 with 1:34 to go, Mills decided to hold the ball for a potential final, game-winning shot.
Working the ball around, the Spartans called timeout with 36.5 left and set-up the offense but Colby Cables (eight points) threw up an ill-advised, outside shot that Fries easily rebounded and the Lancers were on the move with just under 12 seconds remaining.
Fries then fell at half-court, there was a bit of a scrum for the ball which the Eastern player firmly held on to as one of the officials eventually blew his whistle but no immediate call was made.
Through a bit of confusion, the two officials got together for a quick conference and a foul was issued on Mills’ Nate DiChiara as Raponey was in disbelief on the sidelines.
With 7.8 seconds left on the clock, the Lancers inbounded the ball and made its call to Borgelin who quickly blew by two defenders and sank his game-winning hoop in the paint to propel Eastern to a 47-45 lead.
“I challenged him at halftime,” said Ray of Borgelin. “I didn’t think he played very well in the first half but I thought he played extremely well in the second half. You’ve got to take that with a sophomore guard that’s inexperienced. We had two options on that last play and he read it. You take the first option away, you’ve got to go make a play and that’s what happened. It was nice to see him be able to put a stamp on the game with a big basket at the end.”
But in the jubilation, Raponey had called timeout, it was granted and 1.2 second were put back on the clock.
On the ensuing play, Geissler’s half-court heave at the buzzer was just off the mark as the Lancers held on to defeat the Spartans, 47-45.
“Unfortunately, that’s how the game works,” said Raponey. “Human error is part of the game. I make mistakes as coach, the players make mistakes, and the officials are just guys out there just trying to do the best they can. Sometimes, things just don’t go your way. You can’t dwell on that. You’ve got to look back on how well you played, look back at your execution down towards the end of the game and just clean things up and do things better the next time around.”
NOTES…In the opening round of the Bristol Eastern Holiday Classic, Avon’s Jack Hall scored 26 points; Will Soucier had 12; and Tyler Brokenshire dropped in 10 to lead the Falcons to a 69-43 win over RHAM. Avon moved to 3-0 on the season while RHAM fell to 1-2.