Special to the Record-Journal
SOUTHINGTON — Survive and advance. Maybe you’ve heard this mentioned a time or two in March?
The Southington boys basketball team did both Tuesday night in the first round of the CIAC Division II state tournament.
Down by as many as 19 in the first half thanks to dismal outside shooting, the No. 12 Blue Knights rallied behind a big third quarter to eke out a 66-64 victory over No. 21 Crosby.
Trailing 33-18 at halftime, Southington outscored the Bulldogs 32-10 to take a 50-48 lead into the fourth quarter.
There, Crosby staged its own rally to take a 57-55 lead. The Bulldogs still led 58-57 with two minutes to play when Luke Penna’s corner 3-pointer with 1:22 to play gave Southington the lead for good.
Aidan Buck and Dan McGetrick both made a pair of free throws down the stretch to seal the win and send SHS, now 18-7, to a second-round matchup Thursday night at No. 5 Xavier. The Falcons (17-6) beat 28-seeded Amistad 68-57 in their first-round game Tuesday night.
One thing the Blue Knights know for sure as they head to Middletown: They can’t fall behind by double digits if they want to take down Xavier
“As we get deeper (in the playoffs), we can’t do this,” Buck said after Tuesday’s game, alluding to Southington’s 0-for-11 shooting from 3-point range in the first half against Crosby. “A half like that will lose us a game. We were terrible. We have to fix it, especially at Xavier.”
Actually, the Blue Knights delivered a quick fix on Tuesday. After the 0-fer in the first half, Southington drilled six of seven treys in the third quarter to launch the comeback.
The rally was also the second major comeback by the Blue Knights in two weeks. Southington trailed Hall by 16 points in the first round of the Central Connecticut Conference Tournament before beating the Titans 63-62 in overtime.
“Just like Hall last week, we knew we were going to come back,” said junior Ryan Hammarlund, who hit the winning 3-pointer at Hall in OT. “We are going to have to play better that this (at Xavier), but it’s still the same game and the same goal. We gotta win.”
Before and after the comeback at Hall, Southington also played Northwest Catholic and East Catholic, the CCC’s leading Division I teams, tough in defeat. The Blue Knights led East at halftime in the CCC Tournament quarterfinals and trailed Northwest by four points with two minutes to play in the regular-season finale.
“We saw ourselves in the same spot at Hall,” Penna said. “It just takes time and experience, and that’s something that comes in the playoffs.
“We just have to keep this momentum up and get off to a hot start. We can’t get punched in the chin early (at Xavier),” Penna added.
While Southington will need to play the way it did after halftime for a full 32 minutes at Xavier to win, head coach Ed Quick said it won’t be any tougher than his Blue Knights’ introduction to the state playoffs Tuesday night.
“I think winning the first one is really hard,” Quick said. “Based on my experience, winning the first one is really hard.
“It’s human nature. Of course, the big picture in the back of your mind is it would be nice to keep it going,” Quick continued. “But I think it’s very hard to win the first game, based on all the emotions, the unknowns. Now we can settle in, go practice tomorrow, and go play again and hope we win at Xavier.”
Against Crosby, the Blue Knights ripped off a 20-3 run to start the second half. They took a 38-36 lead with 3:46 to play in the third quarter on Buck’s spinning and-one layup.
It was Southington’s first lead since 10-8 in the first quarter.
“I challenged them.” Quick said of his halftime words to the Blue Knights. “You want to go out like this? This is what we built towards?
“We were playing on our heels,” Quick continued. “We weren’t guarding. We jacked 3’s.”
“We had practiced for one and a half weeks to beat a traditional power,” Quick added. “I don’t care who’s on their team now; (Crosby head coach Nicholas Augelli) has 800 wins. And this is what we are going to do?”
“(Quick) said the facts; it wasn’t Southington basketball,” said Buck, who was held scoreless in the first half. “We had to stop chucking 3’s and get the ball in the paint. That’s what we did.”
Buck and the Blue Knights missed their first 11 treys of the game to fall behind. Buck misfired on four shots from behind the arc; his teammates missed another seven.
Ironically, it was the same shot that ignited the rally in the third quarter, when Southington was 6-for-7 from behind the arc.
Penna, who led Southington with 19 points and 12 rebounds, made a pair of those 3’s. So did McGetrick (9 points).
Hammarlund (11 points) and Carson Lentini had back-to-back treys after a Buck steal and layup got the Blue Knights going in the third quarter.
After Lentini’s triple capped a 7-0 run that got SHS within 33-26, Penna and Buck (10 points, 5 assists) scored 10 of the Blue Knights’ next 12 points to put Southington up 38-36 with 3:46 remaining in the period.
“It was a playoff situation and we just had to grit it out,” Penna said.
Earlier, after a 10-10 first period, SHS turned the ball over on three straight possessions to start the second. Crosby took full advantage by scoring seven straight points to take a 17-10 lead a minute into the quarter.
“The second quarter we got tight,” Quick said. “We started to take shots out of rhythm; we stopped defending. They played downhill. Just a recipe for disaster.”
Hammarlund scored out of a SHS timeout to make it 17-12, but the Blue Knights then missed their next nine shots — six from behind the arc — to fall behind 33-14 with 50 second to play in the half.
“Let’s go attack and play our game,” said Quick referring to his team’s turnaround in the third period. “We were settling for jacked 3’s (in the first half). We came out and drove in the paint. We played from the paint.
“We got it going, but you knew they were going to come back,” added Quick. “But we work on situational basketball in practice, and our eyes were different in the second half. It took every play, and every ounce of energy to win.”
Crosby used an 11-2 run to start the fourth quarter to tie the game 52-52. Claumar McRae’s 3-pointer then gave the Bulldogs a 57-54 lead midway through the final frame.
McRae scored nine points for the Bulldogs, who were led by Curtis Ellis’ 12 points. Jason Robinson netted 11.
Two Penna free throws tied the game 57-57 with 2:43 remaining. His corner 3 then put the Blue Knights up for good, 60-58.
Quick said Southington scoring the last four points of first half, including John Flynn’s running layup at the buzzer, allowed the Blue Knights to enter halftime with some momentum.
That momentum certainly carried over.
“Obviously, it was a rough first half,” said Buck. “But it only takes two minutes to change the momentum of a game.”