CROMWELL >> The Cromwell boys basketball team’s recent stretch of four straight losses must have felt like an eternity for Panthers coach John Pinone.
Well, the streak is over. But ending it wasn’t easy.
Junior guard Noah Budzik drained some big 3-pointers in the second half and finished with 17 points, junior forward Austin Roy had a terrific performance with 15 points, and the Panthers made enough plays down the stretch to escape with a 65-58 Shoreline Conference win over Portland Tuesday night at the Salafia Gymnasium.
“We’ll take it,” Pinone said. “It feels like we haven’t won one in a month.”
Junior forward Dianta Highsmith led the Highlanders with a game-high 18 points. Junior Dylan Curtin chipped in 14 points, including a three-quarter court buzzer-beater at the end of the first, and senior Nick Coman added 11 points for Portland (4-7).
“We’re starting to put it together,” Portland coach Chris Serra said. “The guys are starting to understand how to play team ball but some of the decisions we made in the second half in terms of shot selection were out of place in our offense.”
Cromwell (7-5) buried seven 3-pointers in the first half and took a 35-26 lead at intermission.
The Panthers maintained their lead in the third thanks to three long-range treys from Budzik. And when senior Sean Melaven opened the fourth quarter with a conventional three-point play, Cromwell led 53-43.
The Highlanders, however, weren’t going away on this night.
Coman sank a corner trey, Joey Ray (six points) converted a baseline jumper, and Roland Thivierge’s low post bucket closed the gap to 53-50.
Panthers junior Reese Reyes answered with a nifty layup in traffic but Highsmith swooped in for a layup, Curtin netted a floater from the lane and at 55-54 it was fasten-your-seat-belts time.
Cromwell got some breathing room when Melaven found Budzik open underneath. Budzik made the layup and was fouled. His free throw made it 58-54 with 3:21 left.
“Pinone does a great job with all of his teams,” Serra said. “It’s a tough team to try and compete with. But I thought our kids showed great heart tonight. We’ll pull off some wins as we keep improving the rest of the season.”
Portland got as close as 60-58 after Curtin’s layup off a turnover with 1:21 remaining. Reyes added a free throw but grabbed his own rebound while missing the second foul shot and Portland was forced to foul junior David Dewey with 56 seconds left.
Dewey made both free throws for a 63-58 lead and Portland couldn’t connect on a trio of 3-point shots at the end.
“We got away with a couple of bad turnovers down the stretch but we made enough free throws, so that was good,” Pinone said. “Hopefully, this is one that we can build some confidence and then we can take this and start to go in another direction. We just have to play smarter.”