BRIDGEPORT — The Bridgeport Central boys basketball team’s first state playoff game in three years was worth the wait for Barry McLeod and Co.
The No. 14 Hilltoppers made their return to the postseason count, defeating No. 19 Career Magnet 62-56 in the first round of the Division II tournament on Tuesday.
“It’s a good feeling. It’s a good feeling,” McLeod, Central’s coach of 26 years, said. “I’m happy for the kids, man. I’m really happy for the kids. A lot of these guys went through all that [stuff] the last two years.”
The Hilltoppers won a total of three games over those two seasons, plummeting to 0-20 in 2015-2016. It was a stunning fall for a program that was just a few years removed from winning the Class LL championship.
With nine days’ rest since their loss to Danbury in the FCIAC quarterfinals, the Hilltoppers jumped out fast on Career. They led 20-6 in the first quarter and parlayed that strong start into their first playoff victory since the 2013-14 Class LL final against Fairfield Prep.
“We made just enough shots, and they missed just enough,” McLeod said. “We get a chance to play again.”
Central will visit third-seeded Wethersfield in the second round on Thursday at 7:45 p.m.
The Hilltoppers led by 11 points in the fourth quarter, but Career climbed within three, 59-56, with 28.1 seconds remaining after Kyle-Hasim Daniels converted a four-point play. The Panthers (13-10) got a chance to tie seconds later, but came up short.
“I just don’t think our kids understood the importance of getting off to a fast start in a state (playoff) game,” Career coach Larry Kelley said. “I’ve still got some young kids, what am I going to do? We had some comebacks, but we let them get right back out on us right after we cut it to two or three.
“The way that we played the last four minutes of the game was supposed to be the way we were supposed to play from the beginning — and it wouldn’t have been a game.”
Central forward DJ Fulton sank two free throws with 17.3 seconds left and finished with 17 points. Ra’Quan Rilley and Raj Walker scored 13 and 12 points, respectively.
“It was pretty intense,” Fulton said of the fourth quarter, in which Central outscored Career 20-19. “Our offense went slow, but we hit our free throws and rebounded.”
Central held leads of 31-28 at halftime and 42-37 after the third quarter. An 11-3 spurt to begin the fourth gave the Hilltoppers their largest lead, 51-40, since the opening minutes of the game.
Guard Tamar Williams led Career with 18 points, and Daniels scored 17.
“They (Central) did a good job,” Kelley said. “Naturally, they deserved to win tonight.”
PLAYER OF THE GAME
DJ Fulton, Central, F: The senior scored a team-high 17 points and was perfect (5-for-5) from the free-throw line.
“We made some foul shots when we had to. I wasn’t extremely confident when we lost [Ra’Quan] Rilley with five minutes to go, I’ll tell you that. He picked up his fifth foul. But guys came in there and held down the fort.” — Central coach Barry McLeod
BUSY NIGHT AT THE LINE
The free-throw line was a busy place for both teams. Central was 20-of-34 from the stripe while Career was 9-of-14.
CENTRAL 62, CAREER 56
CAREER MAGNET (13-10)
Kyle-Hasim Daniels 5 3-3 17 Timothy Fields 0 2-2 2 Tamar Williams 7 3-4 18 Saveeon Avery 1 0-0 2 Da’qujuan Walker 4 1-3 9 Jordan Williams 1 0-2 2 Jalen Jones 3 0-0 6. Totals 21 9-14 56.
BRIDGEPORT CENTRAL (14-8)
Fab Agramonte 2 5-7 10 TyQuan Fleming 0 1-2 1 Darius Washington 2 2-2 7 Ra’Quan Rilley 6 1-4 13 Raj Walker 3 6-13 12 DJ Fulton 6 5-5 17 David Brown 1 0-1 2. Totals 20 20-34 62.
CAREER 10 18 9 19 — 56
CENTRAL 22 9 11 20 — 62
3-pointers: C — Daniels 4, Williams; BC — Agramonte, Washington. Technical fouls: C — Avery; BC — Rilley. Fouled out: C — Avery, Walker, Williams; BC — Rilley.