SOUTHINGTON — What’s better than qualifying for the CIAC state tournament? Doing so by routing your rival.
The Southington boys basketball team looked every bit the part of a playoff team Saturday night in earning its ticket to the Division II state fold.
Southington earned what head coach Ed Quick referred to as its “magic” eighth victory with a 76-38 non-conference win over Cheshire. Connecticut high school teams become eligible for the state playoffs with eight wins.
Southington senior Aidan Buck led the way. He scored a game-high 19 points in just three quarters of action.
Buck set the tone for the hot-shooting Blue Knights, who improved to 8-3. The guard scored 10 points in the opening quarter and nine more in the third.
Buck hit two of his three 3’s in the first quarter in staking the Blue Knights to a double-digit lead they enjoyed from the second quarter on.
Carson Lentini (11 points) took over the scoring load in the second quarter with eight points, while forward Ryan Hammarlund (12 points) joined Buck’s hot hand in the third quarter with a pair of 3’s himself to kept the Blue Knight going.
“It’s going to be great for us to play in a state playoff game,” said Buck, who was as economical as efficient. Buck took just 13 shots from the field, making seven, and hit both of his free throws.
“We now have a chance to win a state championship,” Buck added.
“Hey, listen, we are excited to be in the state tournament,” Quick said. “It’s a lot of hard work.
“The first step was going 1-0 each game, but now we can tangibly feel we are in the state tournament,” Quick added.
In opening up a 31-point lead after three quarters, SHS made 24 of 44 shots (55 percent) with its regulars on the court.
Buck and Hammarlund sat out the entire fourth quarter, while fellow starters Lentini, Ian Beierle (8 points) and Luke Penna (6) played sparingly in the final frame. The Blue Knights led Cheshire 62-31 heading into the last eight minutes.
Dan McGetrick came off the Southington bench to score nine points and hit one of 10 3’s by the Blue Knights. Lentini also made three triples.
Cheshire (3-8) was led by sophomore Bennett Crerar’s 16 points. Connor Hayes hit a pair of 3’s and finished with eight points.
“(Making states) means a lot,” said Penna, “Our focus now is to see how we can compete with the best now against these good teams. I feel like we haven’t really made that mark yet.
“Obviously, eight wins is a big milestone,” Penna added. “(Making states) is something that doesn’t really happen very often at Southington (in boys basketball), but we still have a lot of work to do.”
As Penna alluded to, Saturday night’s victory not only guarantees the Blue Knights will be playing in the postseason, it sets up an interesting CCC interdivisional showdown Monday night against Platt. The Blue Knights host the 9-2 Panthers at 6:45 p.m.
Monday night will be another chance for SHS to prove it deserves to be mentioned along with the best CCC teams.
The Blue Knights weren’t competitive in CCC West losses at Conard and Farmington. SHS, however, lost those games without Hammarlund, who returned from a back injury last week at Simsbury and promptly led the Blue Knights to victory with 25 points.
“States are obviously nice, but our focus right now is on Monday and Platt,” Buck said. “All we care about is the next game; states are a mile away. We need to start proving ourselves against these higher-up teams like Platt.
“Honestly, for me, I’m just looking at Platt,” Buck added.
Saturday night, the Blue Knight’s shooting got better as the game progressed. Buck made four of Southington’s six field goals in a first quarter that saw the Blue Knights actually miss more shots that they made (6 of 14).
But by sharing the ball to find open shooters all over the court, SHS made 9 of 16 second-quarter shots to take a 36-16 lead into halftime.
“I was getting to my spots and they were getting me the ball,” Lentini said. “I was able to knock them down.”
Then, after the break, Buck got hot again. He put Southington up 38-16 with a transition layup to start the second half, then thrilled the SHS fans with a pair of pump-fake jumpers to cap off a nine-point quarter.
And when Buck wasn’t scoring in the third quarter, Hammarlund was with his two 3’s, the second of which extended the lead to 46-22 with 5:03 to play in the third.
“Anyone is capable of making shots,” Hammarlund said. “Whoever has the hot hand, we are willing to give the ball and let him go to work.”
Buck agreed with Hammarlund.
“Everyone on this team is a shooter and we love sharing the ball and giving everyone looks,” Buck said. “It really doesn’t matter who scores; we just want to win.”
“We are sharing it well; guys don’t even think about, ‘Is it my turn to shoot?’” Quick said. “And you can’t play that way unless you’re unselfish and you have the right mindset.
“I don’t know who scored what,” Quick added. “But I thought our passing was just tremendous. Hitting shots gets you going, but I thought our floor balance was excellent.
“Shots are going to come and go, but Aidan really shared it well, Carson shared it well and Luke, along with Ryan, really shared it well. That’s what got us going,” Quick continued.
The Blue Knights took their first 20-point lead with 4:43 left in the second quarter via a jumper by Penna.
After five points on a basket and 3-pointer by Cheshire’s Connor Hayes, the Blue Knights extended their advantage to 28-15 on an inside hoop by John Flynn.
Flynn sparked a 9-0 run that put the Blue Knights up 32-15 with a steal and another inside hoop off a nice pass from Hammarlund.
“It was frustrating,” Crerar said. “Hammarlund would pull up from deep a few times, and Aidan Buck … they really didn’t miss. We could have limited some second chances, but really there wasn’t much else we could have done.”
Southington led 36-16 at the break after McGetrick hit a jumper and the Blue Knights broke the Cheshire press to find Lentini alone under the basket with 23 seconds to play in the half.
The Blue Knights got off to a hot start behind Buck, who hit a pair of 3’s as SHS took a 16-8 lead after the first eight minutes.