No. 3 seed Conard hosted No. 14 Westhill in West Hartford Thursday night.
By Ted Newton. Photos by Ronni Newton
Behind a combined 53 points from forwards Riley Fox and Jalen Hamblin, stellar play from guards Declan McCann and Michael Weiss, and aggressive play from center Ryan Bushnell, the Conard Chieftains defeated the Westhill Vikings 70-61 in a CIAC Division 2 playoff game at Conard gymnasium Thursday evening.
“We were ready,” said Chieftains head coach Jared Leghorn. “It was coming together as a team and being positive and having fun and enjoying the moment that we earned tonight. That showed on the court. I thought we were really locked in. That’s built through 24 games of trust and togetherness.”
In the first quarter Conard (19-2) relied on good ball movement, Fox’s smooth shooting and strong drives to the basket from Hamblin and Bushnell. The team featured balanced scoring, with Hamblin and Bushnell posting six points each and Fox contributing eight. The last play of the quarter featured McCann jumping off the end line to catch the ball heading out of bounds, and whipping it back to Fox on the arc, who calming swished a 3-pointer as time expired to put the Chieftains up 20-11.
The second quarter was more evenly matched, with Conard exploiting some size mismatches to go up by a dozen points, only to see Westhill (16-7) turn up the defensive pressure and its quick guards hit a number of layups that helped the Vikings to bring their deficit back to single digits. However, strong play by Conard during the last minute, along with a baseline swish by guard Kyle Barnum as time expired had Conard heading into the halftime break leading by 15 points, 41-26.
Westhill turned up the defensive pressure to start the second half, which seemed to upset Conard’s flow and brought the Vikings within 10 points about halfway through the quarter. Leghorn called a timeout to thwart their momentum, and the Chieftains came out of the huddle with renewed energy. Conard got the lead back to 15 after Fox sank two free throws following a technical foul on the Westhill bench for protesting an out of bounds call on a Vikings player.
As the quarter was drawing to a close, however, the Chieftains were getting into foul trouble, and Westhill frequently found itself on the line for foul shots. The Vikings also grabbed a number of second chance rebounds on both ends of the court, reflecting their desperate energy to bring the score closer.
That energy continued during the fourth quarter, with Westhill whittling the margin to five points with four minutes to go behind some sharp shooting from guard Anderson Graham and three consecutive free throws by guard JeySon Slade who was fouled when taking a 3-point shot. The home crowd was getting nervous.
Conard fans were able to breathe more freely, however, as great looks by the Chieftain guards and quick cuts by the forwards led to several buckets that put the home team up by 10 points with a minute to go. Despite a couple of successful drives by Graham, who led the Vikings with 22 points, the visitors were not able to get closer than six points before the final horn.
Said Leghorn about Westhill’s second half pressure: “We knew we weren’t going to win by 15 at halftime, they’re too good of a team. They play so fast they go on runs, so we’ve just had to limit their runs and stay steady. Our guys are built for this, they’ve been playing together, a lot of them since travel basketball years so there’s a lot of trust there.”
The Chieftains cannot rest on their victory laurels for long, however, as they host No. 11 Middletown (16-6) in the CIAC Division 2 quarterfinals Friday evening at 7 p.m.
Like what you see here? Click here to subscribe to We-Ha’s newsletter so you’ll always be in the know about what’s happening in West Hartford! Click the blue button below to become a supporter of We-Ha.com and our efforts to continue producing quality journalism.