MANCHESTER — The CCC Tournament is a thing of the past for the Southington boys basketball team, but the Blue Knights’ season isn’t over.
And Southington will have plenty of time to turn the page in the upcoming state tournament.
The Blue Knights fell 64-45 at Manchester in Thursday night’s opening round of the conference tournament. Southington suffered its fourth straight loss and will enter the CIAC Division II tournament at 10-11.
Forced to play catchup from late in the second quarter on, the 12th-seeded Blue Knights were within six points midway through the fourth quarter. No. 5 seed Manchester, however, finished the game on a 18-5 run to win going away.
Jake Napoli, whose basket with 4:50 to play got Southington within 46-40, and Dylan Olson each had 15 points to lead Southington. The Blue Knights open state tournament play March 10, most likely at Pomperaug.
Manchester improved to 15-6 and advances to Saturday’s quarterfinals at Bulkeley to face Northwest Catholic.
On Thursday night, Manchester magnified every Southington mistake, turning up the defensive pressure in the second half. The home team’s athleticism wore down Southington, which committed 13 of its 23 turnovers after halftime.
After Napoli’s hoop in the fourth quarter, Southington managed just an Olson 3-pointer and two Jared Kelly free throws the rest of the way. Six of Southington’s final eight possessions of the game resulted in turnovers.
“We couldn’t handle (their) pressure or handle the ball, and that’s the result,” Southington coach John Cessario said. “We stopped playing after 16 minutes and, unfortunately, you need to play 32 against a team like that.
“Our guys weren’t ready and that falls on me,” Cessario added. “It’s the second season and we expected a little more out of ourselves. It was really disheartening. We are not down on our guys, but we need a better effort.
“We need to reset our mental aspect. It is a grind for three-plus months. (The break) allows us to enjoy each other’s company and really find out where we are — not where we were, but where we are — and set ourselves up for Pomperaug.”
It’s been a streaky season for the Blue Knights, who started the season 5-0 before losing five in a row at one point. Southington then won three straight and now has lost four in a row heading into the state tournament.
Manchester, which beat the Blue Knights 71-68 during the regular season, appeared a step ahead of the Blue Knights all night on Thursday.
Southington, however, stayed with the athletic Red Hawks throughout the first half. The Blue Knights led at 17-16 at one point and were later tied at 21-21.
But the Blue Knights went nearly 5½ minutes without scoring from end of first half to the start of the third quarter. That drought allowed Manchester to extend a 28-23 halftime lead to 34-23 in the third quarter.
“The game plan was to slow it down and we thought that would take of business,” Napoli said. “But we didn’t take care of the ball very well. We had them on their heels a little bit, but once we couldn’t score, that’s when they pushed ahead.
“They got a lot of transition baskets and easy points,” Napoli added.
Olson ended the drought with a fast-break basket that got Southington within 34-25 with 4:57 to play in the third quarter. Olson scored eight points in the stanza.
“We didn’t handle (their) pressure well at all,” Olson said. “The pressure got to us. When we played our pace and our game, we got a lot of easy baskets and kept the game close, but once it got to a fast pace, it was their game.”
Two more inside hoops by Olson, the first via a back-door cut, made it 38-29 with 2:19 to play in the frame.
Jared Kelly (four points) struggled to find his shot all night. His only basket came on a drive that got Southington within 40-31 with 1:27 to play in the third.
Another Olson basket with 27 second left in the third kept Southington within nine points.
But Manchester led 44-33 entering the fourth quarter on a 3-pointer by Dahsaun King, who led the Red Hawks with 18 points.
Napoli kept Southington close in the first half with 10 points. Kelly missed all seven shots he took from the field. But while he failed to score until the third quarter, Kelly’s offensive rebounds and nice passes led to crucial second-chance points by the Blue Knights.
Olson’s inside hoop off a nice inbounds play gave Southington its final lead, 17-16.
Manchester regained the lead and extended its advantage to 21-17 with 5:14 to play in the half. But the Blue Knights scored the next four points to even the game.
The Blue Knights tied the game 21-21 on an Aedan Derrick hoop, which was set up by a nice pass from Kelly with 3:54 to play in the half.
The Red Hawks, however, turned two Southington turnovers at midcourt into points over the next minute to lead 25-21.
Another Derrick basket got Southington within 25-23, but the athleticism of the Red Hawks led to a 28-23 lead by halftime. Manchester got several chances to score via offensive rebounds and Patrick Jordan, who had five points in the second quarter, scored the half’s final three points.
Manchester forced tempo with a full-court pressing defense. The Blue Knights stayed in the game behind the outside shooting of Napoli, who hit a pair of 3-pointers in the first quarter and his eight points in the frame led the Blue Knights.
Joe Gaudio also had a 3 as the Blue Knights trailed 16-13 after the first quarter.