SOUTHINGTON — What was the difference between the No. 7 and No. 26 seeds in the first round of the CIAC Division III boys basketball tournament? A few free throws.
Southington, the seventh seed, made just enough shots from the free throw line to escape Monday night with a 56-52 overtime victory over Berlin.
The Blue Knights made of eight of 15 free throws in OT, while Berlin missed six of nine.
“It was almost like a missed free throw contest,” said Southington head coach John Cessario. “But those guys are gamers. I’m so happy the seniors got to experience this.”
“This” was Southington’s first CIAC Tournament win in boys basketball since 2011. So the Blue Knights’ revival continues under Cessario. Southington will host No. 10 North Haven on Wednesday night in the second round – weather permitting.
“We may get a Mother Nature blessing,” said Cessario. “We’ll need the extra day or two.”
Southington (16-7) scored the first five points of OT on Tim O’Shea’s inside basket of a nice feed from Colin Burdette and Burdette’s own fastbreak layup. O’Shea scored while getting fouled and completed the three-point play.
It then became a free throw contest, with Southington and Berlin combining for just one field goal in the extra session — a 3-pointer by Holden Murphy with just 42 second to play.
“It usually comes down to the little things,” said Berlin head coach Mike Veneziano. “At the end, they were just a little better than us.”
One of those little things were big offensive rebounds by Southington senior forward Jeremy Mercier, who finished with 17 points. His tip-in of a Ryan Gesnaldo miss and offensive putback off Colin Burdette’s errant 3-pointer kept the Blue Knights close down the stretch.
“I just have to find the ball when it’s in the air,” Mercier said. “My mindset is if the ball is in the air, it’s mine.”
Down 44-40 with 52 seconds to play, Southington forced OT with a little help from Berlin (8-13). The Redcoats missed the front end of two one-and-one situations in the final 28 seconds of regulation, allowing the Blue Knights to tie the game on Burdette’s driving layup with 7.2 seconds to play. Burdette had missed a similar shot just seconds earlier.
“We certainly expect to make some noise (going forward),” said Burdette. “Records don’t matter now. But we came out flat, too slow.”
Murphy’s desperation 3-pointer at the end of regulation found nothing but air for Berlin.
Southington allowed Berlin to score the first 10 points of the game before rallying to take its first lead in the third quarter. The Blue Knights, who came into the game holding teams to under 50 points on average, held Berlin to just two points in the second quarter.
Still, Southington trailed 21-20 at halftime. The Blue Knights took their first lead on Mercier’s basket to open the second half. Southington’s lead grew to 32-27 on O’Shea’s field goal with 27 seconds to play in the third quarter.
“We just came out too flat,” said Mercier.
Berlin took a 40-38 lead in the fourth quarter with three straight 3-pointers, the last one from Michael McCarthy with 3:02 to play. Murphy then gave Berlin its final lead, 44-40, with 52 seconds to play on back-to-back driving layups.
As the 7th seed, Southington was the last team not to receive a Division III bye in the revamped CIAC Tournament. Berlin, meanwhile, was the final team to qualify in D-III. The two Central Connecticut Conference teams didn’t meet in the regular season, but the Blue Knights and Redcoats did scrimmage prior to the season.
Berlin finished second in the CCC South-Colonial, but didn’t qualify for the CCC Tournament.
Southington held Berlin to just a single field goal in the second quarter, as the Redcoats missed 10 straight shots. Berlin’s last field goal of the first half came at 5:21 of second quarter.
Back-to-back 3-pointers by Gesnaldo and Andrew Lohneiss opened the second-quarter scoring and got Southington to within 19-16. Gesnaldo came into the game averaging just 2.1 points a game.
The Blue Knights turned the ball over on five of their first six possessions. Berlin, meanwhile, made four its first seven shots to take a 10-0 lead. Southington didn’t score its first field goal until 3:57 remained in the first quarter on Lohneiss’ floater.
"It looked like we hadn't been here," Cessario said. "(The start) was a blur. We were a half-step slow. In 23 games we didn't look like that. We had to find ourselves."
Berlin’s lead grew to 17-5 on Dylan Frisk’s basket with 1:30 to play in quarter. Southington scored the quarter’s final five points to get within 19-10. Ryan Gesnaldo’s first 3-pointer and Cameron Clynes’ layup at the buzzer off a nice feed from Mercier closed out the first-quarter scoring.
Brookfield 64, Lyman Hall 51: The No. 8 Bobcats established a 29-17 by halftime to post the first-round Division III victory in Brookfield.
Brookfield (15-8) will host No. 9 Avon in Wednesday’s second round. Lyman Hall, the No. 25 seed, saw its season end at 8-14.
Senior 1,000-point scorer Kevin Ransom scored 11 points in his final game with the Trojans. Cam Regan and Jake Ranney also had 11 points for LH. Austin Ruiz recorded a team-high 12.
Brookfield’s Cam Gleichauf led all scorers with 23 points. Connor Gruda (17) and David Walker (15) were also in double figures for the SWC squad.