BRISTOL >> The two teams’ seasons couldn’t have been more similar.
Bristol Central and Middletown High shared the Central Connecticut Conference South Division championship with 12-2 records, and each beat the other on its home court by the same score.
But Wednesday night’s rubber match in the second round of the CIAC Class L tournament belonged to Central as the Rams first built up a 14-point lead, proceeded to blow every bit of it, then with the game up for grabs at 50 each in the fourth quarter, Central grabbed it and ran away.
The final score was 72-59, but that doesn’t begin to tell the story.
Central (19-4) jumped off to a 19-8 first quarter lead as MHS missed seven of its first nine shots.
The Rams led by as much as 14 in the second quarter at 31-17 before settling for a 34-23 lead at the break.
But the worm began to turn in the third quarter. MHS trailed by 13 when Jacob Collins (18 points) scored to open the half, but MHS outscored Central 20-11 the rest of the third to climb to within 47-43 after three.
Anthony Mellilo’s tip-in of a missed free throw tied the game at 50-50 with 6:15 to play, sending the more than 1,100 fans into an uproar.
But that’s where the run ended.
Central responded with a 13-2 run of its own. Game, set, match.
“Coming back like we did took everything out of us,” said MHS coach Dave Sytulek. At 50-50 I thought we were in good shape because we came back with Brandon [Simmons, 21 points] on the bench with four fouls. But we hit a wall. I’m proud of the kids; they didn’t quit.”
That 13-2 run was the game, according to Central coach Tim Barrette.
“Senior leadership was the key,” he said. “My seniors made big plays in the fourth quarter. I also thought getting an early lead was important. If Middletown got the lead, with those guards, we would have had to chase and it would have been a long night. We knew they had a run in them. Let’s not kid ourselves, Middletown is a good team. But we answered.”
In that run Manny Severino, (18 points), Collins and Joe DeFillippi (14 points) — all seniors — made big plays. DeFillippi’s three-pointer with five minutes to play gave Central a 59-50 lead and that, said Sytulek, was a dagger to the heart.
“Central is obviously a very good team,” said Sytulek. “Falling behind as we did made it tough. Hey, they’ve lost only four games all year.”
In addition to Simmons 21, Makai Hunter had 14 points and Caylen Williams had nine. Both team had 17 free throws. MHS was 17-for-26 and Central was 17-for-25.
Central had five players in double figures, including Tyleam Hamel and Leslie Johnson, both of whom had 10 points.
Middletown finished the season at 15-7.