In a battle of two West Hartford teams, Northwest Catholic won a resounding victory over Conard and will head to the CIAC Division II boys basketball championship game at Mohegan Sun Arena.
By Ronni Newton
The atmosphere was electric in the Enfield High School gym, filled with cheering fans from the two West Hartford teams that made the 18-mile trek to the neutral court chosen for the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference Division II semifinal tournament game.
The two teams had previously played each other at Enfield High School on March 1, in the semifinals of the CCC tournament, but at stake this time was a trip to the CIAC championship game at Mohegan Sun Arena. Well before the final buzzer sounded with with the final score of 62-35, it was clear that Northwest Catholic’s season would continue.
“We worked really hard in practice,” Northwest Catholic coach John Mirabello said after the game. “Fox and Hamblin have been a handful for everybody all year long. We kind of put an emphasis on trying to make it very difficult for them to get any open looks,” he said of sophomore Riley Fox and senior Jalen Hamblin, Conard’s two big men and often the top scorers.
“I think that was the key for our game, is that we were able to play better defense against them – their team – than we did in the first two games, and that kind of led out to where we were able to get some baskets on our own. We weren’t doing so well offensively either until a stretch in the second half where we started to make some plays and make some shots.”
This was the third time Conard and Northwest met this season, and in all three contests the Lions have been a second half team. In the first contest, on Feb. 1, Conard led by a point at the half but Northwest picked up steam in the third quarter and won 53-43. On March 1, in the CCC tournament semifinals, the game was tied at the half but Northwest again pulled away in the third quarter, winning 66-50.
Tuesday night, Northwest led 22-16 at the half, and scored 18 in the third period while holding Conard to six.
“I think we continued to keep up the defensive intensity, making it hard for them to score any easy baskets, and then it gave us a little confidence boost on the offensive end,” Mirabello said. The team was getting a bit frustrated, but he told them to keep playing, and then senior and Fairfield-bound Matty Curtis made a few shots, something has been able to do throughout his career.
“He usually finds a way to get himself going and everybody else feeds off of that. … It came a little easier, but I think it was because of the defense,” Mirabello said.
Conard coach Jared Leghorn said his team was “on edge a little” Tuesday night and made some uncharacteristic turnovers.”Silly travels, stepping out of bounds,” he said, and didn’t get off to a great start.
“We thought we had a great game plan and we were ready to go but then you get on the court and it’s a little bit different. We know the formula and we know the recipe and what to do. We defend them pretty well but we’ve got to go out there and do it one of these times,” Leghorn said, noting that it’s hard in practice to simulate Northwest’s size – with two players who are 6-foot-8 and another who’s 6-foot-9.
“And Curtis is all world, man. .. he was fantastic. And tonight as always, he’s hard to stop. And if he misses there’s three guys there to go rebound.”
Curtis had 23 points, and while Mirabello didn’t know the exact count said he definitely had more than 10 rebounds for a double-double, while 6-foot-9 freshman Badara Diakite also scored in double figures with 10, while sophomores Gianni Mirabello and London Jemison each chipped in eight.
Senior Jalen Hamblin led the scoring for Conard with 10 points and sophomore Riley Fox had eight.
“This senior class lost out on an opportunity in 2020 and we had a team they thought was going to make a good run and then they pulled the plug on us and last year we didn’t get a chance to play,” Mirabello said.
Northwest was a No. 2 seed and had a bye in the first round of the 2020 tournament – but due to the COVID-19 pandemic the season ended abruptly before the second round games, scheduled for March 11, 2020, were able to be played. Conard, then a No. 14 seed, won its first round game in the 2020 tournament before everything shut down.
This year they get to go to the very last day of practice, Mirabello said, and he told them about heading to the championship: “Don’t be happy just getting there.”
In the locker room, after the game, Leghorn said, “I started bawling my eyes out, not because I was sad but because of how proud I am of them. I thought about how last year we lost in the loser’s bracket of the CCC tournament against Plainville and we were really upset, but to go from that to this in a year is huge progress” reaching the semifinals in both the CCC and CIAC tournaments.
“We have two seniors, so [almost] everyone that locker room is going to be back next year. We’ll remember how we felt right now and we’re going to be ready to win not just for our program but for the whole community. The community support that we received from parents, and alumni, and the mayor was just overwhelmingly … it’s emotional to think about,” Leghorn said.
When the game ended, Mirabello didn’t yet know his opponent because top seed Bristol Central (20-0) and No. 4 Wilton were tied. Bristol Central, led by UConn-bound Donovan Clingan, pulled out the win over Wilton, 54-52, in overtime.
While the finals will definitely be at Mohegan Sun Arena this coming weekend, the date and time have yet to be set, and Mirabello doesn’t know if there will be three or four days to practice. “We’re so excited to be playing in that last game, in the big stadium. I’m so proud of the kids. they’ve been working for this since they were lifting weights and conditioning in the preseason.”
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