Conard hosted Simsbury Tuesday night in West Hartford, and the underdog Chieftains came away with a great win.
By Paul Palmer
Character… That’s the word Conard boys’ varsity basketball coach Jared Leghorn kept coming back to Tuesday night after his Chieftains upset Simsbury 34-32.
“We were down two starting senior guards. This shows a lot of character. It [character] doesn’t get any better than tonight’s game,” said Leghorn.
Just 24-hours earlier, Conard lost a heartbreaker to Hartford Public on a three-quarter court game winning shot for the Owls. Tuesday night, it was one of the area’s best basketball teams paying a visit.
The Trojans (4-2) were riding a four-game win streak, while the Chieftains (5-2) had lost two of their last and had previously posted just a single win on the season. But somehow none of that mattered as Conard’s team approach made the difference.
“This is the most connected game we have had, the bench, the players, everything,” said Leghorn. “We haven’t stuck together like that all season.”
The game seemed like it was going to follow the expected script as Simsbury’s talented senior Ian Calabrese opened the scoring by hitting a jumper and then a 3-pointer, and teammate Chris Kokines added his first points. It was 7-0 Simsbury 2:30 into the game.
Leghorn called a time out to regroup his team and whatever he said worked.
Ryan Bushnell started the turnaround when he blocked the shot of Samuel Scott, and then hit a jumper on the ensuing possession for Conard. As the quarter was winding down, Conard’s Jack Kennedy blocked a Trojan shot and then converted the layup at the other end. Conard trailed 10-5 after one.
The low scoring continued into the second, until Griffin O’Connell spun into the lane for Conard, drove to the hoop and hit the mid-range jumper with under 2:00 to go in the second to pull the Chieftains within 4 at 15-11. Senior Evan Smart added a 3 with a minute to go and Conard trailed by just 3 at the break.
Sophomore Declan McCann and junior Ben Tartaglia played a solid first half and would continue to make big contributions in the second half.
Conard would take its first lead of the game 90 seconds into the second half when freshman Riley Fox found McCann for the hoop and an 18-17 lead.
Smart pushed that lead to 4 when he hit a 3 from the right corner 30 seconds later. But Simsbury showed its grit and retook the lead on Thomas Dennehy’s 3 and expanded it to 5 points on Calabrese’s basket. But back came Conard, and when McCann hit a 3-pointer with half a minute to go in the third quarter, the Chieftains trailed by just 2 points heading to the final 8 minutes.
The final stanza started slowly with both teams missing early 3s, before McCann hit a free throw and Tartaglia a bank shot to give Conard the 30-29 lead with five minutes to go.
Fox – who was held in check most of the night by Kokines’ defense – blocked Kokines’ shot, and hit a tough short jumper at the other end and Conard had a 3-point lead with just over 3:30 to play. Simsbury would retake the lead with just under a minute to play when Kokines hit two free throws.
Then, with 34.6 seconds to go, Tartaglia was fouled as he drove the lane and hit both ends of the 1-and-1 to make it a 34-33 game. “How about Tartaglia,” said his coach after the game. “His first varsity start and he hits those late free-throws.”
But the game was not over yet – Simsbury still had a final chance.
With the score 34-33 Conard, the Trojans took a time out when they had possession of the ball. As expected, coach Greg Stillman drew up a play to put the ball in the hands of his best player, Calabrese, whose attempted 3 under heavy pressure clanked off the side of the rim – and Conard had the win.
The 32 points are the fewest Simsbury has scored in any game this year. Conard was lead on offense by McCann’s 10 points with Tartaglia also chipping in 10 and Smart dropping in 6 points.
The Chieftains are in the middle of the toughest stretch of their schedule between this game and next Thursday. Next up is powerhouse Northwest Catholic, then it will be Simsbury in a rematch and then Hall.
For Coach Leghorn, the goal is to keep the eye on the ultimate prize. “With no state tournament this year, our only goal is to be playing our best basketball in March at the CCC Tournament.”
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