MIDDLETOWN >> When Vinal Tech’s leading scorer Juwan Bennett went to the bench early in the third quarter with a hip injury, joining senior forward Curtis Anderson, who was already out with a broken foot, the Hawks looked more like a MASH unit than a team on the verge of making the Class L state tournament.
Vinal Tech had a slim 37-31 lead against Goodwin Tech, who defeated the Hawks in New Britain on Jan. 15, and needed someone to step up. Enter Jakari Freeman.
Freeman, a sophomore guard, gave the Hawks a spark by draining a pull-up jumper and a three-pointer. Sophomore guard Elias Rhett also added five points late in the quarter as Vinal had maintained its lead when Bennett returned.
“We lost our best rebounder (Anderson) five games ago and you saw tonight a couple of young kids stepping up,” Vinal Tech coach Gary Marineau said. “You know what was cool? Juwan goes I’m ready but Jakari hit a shot and Juwan says let him stay out there a few more minutes.”
Bennett finished with 20 points, Rhett had 19 points and junior guard Denzell Woolard chipped in 16 points as Vinal Tech defeated the Gladiators, 72-66, in a key Constitution State Conference battle Tuesday night in Middletown.
The victory lifted the Hawks (8-8) into the Class L state tourney for the second straight year.
“I’m proud of these guys,” Marineau added. “Now I told them we don’t want to stay where we are and play Windsor.
We’ve got a couple of home games left and we’ve got to keep working hard.”
Goodwin Tech’s talented backcourt of sophomore Francisco Santiago and senior Keiyan Rivera each netted a game-high 22 points, while sophomore Josh Peeples added 16 points.
Rivera buried three treys and scored 17 points in the first half. But Bennett, who is averaging 26 points per game as one of the leading scorers in the state, also sank three 3-pointers and had 16 points as the Hawks led 34-31 at halftime.
“(Goodwin) can score,” Marineau said. “We lost to them by 14 in their place and tonight we come out and do this. I’m impressed. We needed this.”
With Freeman and Rhett leading the way, the Hawks never trailed in the second half.
A Freeman trey, a nifty left-handed layup by Woolard and Shabbir Ahmed’s corner 3-pointer gave Vinal Tech a 57-47 lead with 5:43 left in the fourth quarter.
Goodwin Tech (6-9) pulled within 59-53 on Rivera’s fourth three-pointer. But the Hawks answered with a 7-0 spurt, highlighted by a pair of fast break layups from Rhett and Woolard.
“We played about seven different defenses tonight,” Marineau said. “That’s the nice thing about this group. Last year they were just starting to get it. This year we’re adjusting. We play hard for 32 minutes. We play great team defense. I’m excited to be here.”