UNCASVILLE – John Pinone cracked a smile Saturday afternoon. That’s a rarity when it comes to the 6-foot-8 long time coach of the Cromwell boys basketball team.
He has high expectations for his club and demands plenty every time out. His Panthers have responded down the stretch, then one more time in the most important game of the season.
Noah Budzi finished with a game-high 22 points to help lead No. 3 seed Cromwell to the Division V state championship, a 58-40 win over No. 4 Wamogo at the Mohegan Sun Arena.
“We knew it was possible because we got such a good draw,” Budzik said. “All the hard work since the beginning of the season, it paid off.”
It’s the ninth state championship for the Panthers (23-4), tying them for fourth place all-time with Sacred Heart, which plays Notre Dame-Fairfield today in the Division I final. The two teams trail Hillhouse (24), Wilbur Cross (14) and St. Joseph (11).
It’s the Shoreline Conference program’s first state title since 2009.
“I couldn’t be happier for the kids, the school and the community,” Pinone said. “These kids since last March dedicated themselves, gave everything that to try and sdo something special and they did that.”
Cromwell controlled the second half on both ends of the floor, running some long offensive possessions trying to get basket at the rim. The Panthers also stepped up on defense, holding Wamogo (22-5) to just 13 second-half points.
“I think in the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth, we really picked it up on the defensive end, got some leakouts in transition,” Pinone said. “We had to get out and defend the three (point line), make them put the ball on the floor. If they beat us with twos, we would have to live with that.”
Said Budzik: “In the second half, we took care of the ball and used each other to get baskets. Everything came together. Coach told us to run the offense and pass the ball between each other,and we were able to get open layups.”
Cromwell sbot over 60 percent (11 of 18) from the floor in the second half. Gabe Charleston finished with 10 points, eight rebounds and two blocks. He had seven rebounds and both blocks in the second half.
“To his credit, he really responded in the second half and played great against Canton as well,” Pinone said about Charleston. He has a lot of potential and great upside. He just needs a little push in the right direction to get him there.”
The Panthers fell behind late in the second quarter and trailed 27-25 at halftime. But Cromwell roared back in the third, scoring the quarter’s first nine points. The Panthers ran long, deliberate possessions and made sure, more often than not, a shot would be from close range.
“We got beat. We didn’t lose,” Wamogo coach Gregg Hunt said. “We will also make it our mission to come back here next year, starting today. If either team got a eight-10 point lead, they’d be in good shape because of the team’s ability to have long possessions.”
Wamogo, the Berkshire League champion that eliminated Shoreline champion East Hampton in the semifinals, trailed by just four, 40-36, through three quarters. But the Panthers shut out the Warriors for the final 5:40 of the game.
Garrett Sattazahn and Ethan Collins finished with 16 and 13 points, respectively, for Wamogo.