Two of the top teams in the state met in the gym at Conard High School in West Hartford Tuesday night.
By Paul Palmer
It was a game that had everything. A pair of 10-win teams both riding win streaks. For the first time this season, a nearly full house as limits on fans were lifted. Scouts from several D1 colleges in the crowd to look at players. And two of the area’s top players going head-to-head.
The matchup between Northwest Catholic and Conard lived up to its billing with exciting plays, strong defense, clutch shooting, and in the end the game turned on a single 8-minute quarter.
For Northwest Catholic (11-1) to win, they would have to find a way to stop or limit Conard super sophomore Riley Fox. They would also need to use their size advantage to control the boards and the inside game. For Conard, success would come if the Chieftains could stop NWC senior Matty Curtis (who’ll play D1 at Fairfield next year) and figure a way around the Lions’ big men.
With a loud student section and a packed house, both teams fed off the energy from the opening tip. The Lions raced out to a quick 4-point lead, before Fox nailed his first 3-pointer of the night. Early on it was Conard controlling the boards, especially on defense with Fox and Jalen Hamblin limiting the visitors to a single shot each trip down.
It would take Conard just over 5 minutes to get its first lead of the game, when Fox hit another 3 to make it a 7-6 game. He would add one more triple in the quarter and the hosts came away with a 10-7 lead at the end of one.
Northwest Catholic used its speed and a trapping, ball hogging defense to force Conard into several turnovers in the first, but they could not convert on all their chances. In the second quarter, the lead would go back and forth with Curtis and Fox leading the scoring for their teams.
The play that had the house on its feet was Fox’s basket with 1.8 seconds to go. After a ball fake, he split two defenders and then hit a leaner from beyond the arc to give Conard a 24-23 lead at intermission, and seemingly all the momentum it would need.
Fox would finish the first half with 17 of his team’s 24 points. Hamblin had the other 7.
“They are bigger, but we are strong,” said Conard coach Jared Leghorn. “I wanted us to be a physical presence and we were.”
The game turned on the third quarter, as Curtis and Northwest got hot and Fox and Conard lost their shooting touch. In fact, the Chieftains would not score their first points of the third period until the 4:15 mark, to cut the Lions lead to 30-26.
Curtis owned the quarter, hitting driving layups and jump shots, and teammates Badara Diakite and Hayden Abdullah began to assert themselves on the boards. The 6-foot-9 Abdullah and the 6-foot-7 Diatkite would block multiple Conard shots and alter several others when they got between shooter and basket. Northwest outscored the hosts 16-7 in the third to take the 40-30 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
Fox would get his first points of the second half on a 3 at the 6:03 mark. Conard’s comeback efforts were dealt a setback when Hamblin went down earlier in the fourth with a calf cramp and would miss several minutes.
The Chieftains made a big run late in the fourth, with Fox cutting it to a 4-point deficit, before Curtis responded to restore the 6-point lead with just 90 seconds to play. It was cut to 4 when Ryan Bushnell hit a layup with 1:07 to go, but that would be as close as Conard would get.
Northwest Catholic would hit several free throws down the stretch to seal the deal and take the 52-43 win. Fox led all scorers with 25 points, and Curtis led his team with 22, 16 of them in the second half.
After the game, Leghorn put it this way: “If we won it would be great, and the loss hurts, but it is the games in March that matter,” he said. “They proved that when you play Conard this year, you are going into a battle.”
Conard (10-2) will travel to face Portland Thursday night at 6 p.m. and will travel to Tolland on Friday night for a 6 p.m. start, while Northwest Catholic will host St. Bernard on Saturday at 2 p.m.
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