NEW HAVEN >> There are banners, jerseys and plaques adorning the walls of the Bernard C. Dandley Memorial Gymnasium at East Hartford High School that the boys basketball team looks at every practice and game.
The most faded read, “Boys Basketball” and “1949.”
That’s right, the Hornets had not been to a state championship basketball game in 68 years — until now.
Fourth-seeded and ninth-ranked East Hartford held off multiple surges by eighth-seeded Kennedy on Thursday at the Floyd Little Athletic Center to advance to the Class LL state final 59-49.
It will face second-seeded and No. 1 Hillhouse at Mohegan Sun Arena on Saturday at 8:15 p.m.
“We’re a special group,” East Hartford point guard Isaiah Williams said. “We realize that now and it’s one of the things that motivated us, because we haven’t been there in so long.”
Facing the Academics will not be easy, but the Hornets are just relishing the opportunity.
“I know they’re a very tough team,” Williams said. “We played them last year and they beat us, so I definitely want revenge against them. What better way to beat them than in a championship.”
On Hillhouse’s home floor Thursday night, East Hartford secured a spot in the final with great ball movement, balanced scoring and a few big plays mixed in.
Isaiah Williams led the Hornets with 14 points while Justin Nwafor added 12 and Kingsley Cockburn had 10. Seven players in all scored for East Hartford.
Ty Sands led Kennedy’s effort with 16 points and LaShawn Smith scored 13.
Both teams started out cold from the floor, ice cold. The first points weren’t scored until 5:45 left in the first and at the halfway mark of the first Kennedy led 2-1, but once the ball started moving, it started falling for the Hornets.
Rafael Cruz hit a 3-pointer at the end of the first to give East Hartford a 14-7 lead.
“We came out a little nervous and tight,” East Hartford coach Ed Lavoie said. “First time playing in an open arena. We shot too many 3s in the first half. It’s very uncharacteristic of us. In the second half we were able to get what we wanted.”
Kennedy made two 3-pointers in the second and coach Ryan Sullivan was surprised to enter halftime down just one, 24-23.
“I said to the guys, ‘Look, it’s a 16-minute game now, but you have to box out and rebound. And they didn’t do that.”
— CT Sports Now (@CT_Sports_Now) March 17, 2017
Out of the break the Hornets started getting the ball down low to Nwafor. The 6-foot-6 senior went to work and there was nearly nothing the Eagles could do about it.
“We faced some tall, athletic kids this year,” Sullivan said. “But no one with his frame size. We couldn’t get around him.”
He scored six of East Hartford’s eight points to start the third as it began to pull away. After a 10-4 run, bookended by Cockburn 3-pointers, the Hornets had a 12 point lead.
Sands answered with five straight points to start a 7-0 run for Kennedy and it was back to a manageable deficit. But then Austin Nwafor joined his brother and the two of them sent East Hartford on a 10-0 run, highlighted by a dunk from Austin Nwafor, and the Hornet faithful started to make plans for Uncasville.
“It definitely motivated us,” Williams said. “Things like that excite us.”
William Spears nailed down a 3-pointer with 2:14 left, but the lead was just too big.
As the buzzer sounded, Lavoie was embraced by assistant coach Jevon Williams as the team celebrated hoping for one more big celebration on Saturday night.
“That’s why we play the games,” Lavoie said. “Anyone’s got a chance now. No one thought we’d get here to the finals. We heard about every other team, Weaver, East Catholic, Notre Dame-West Haven, but here we are. We’re going to Mohegan Sun.”
East Hartford 59, Kennedy 49
— Derek Turner (@DCT_Sports) March 17, 2017
(at Floyd Little Athletic Center, New Haven)
Kennedy (49) — Ty Sands 5 2-3 16, LaShawn Smith 6 0-0 13, Tyvon Stenson 3 0-2 8, William Spears 2 1-1 5, Chomari Joseph 3 1-2 7 — Total 19 4-8 49.
East Hartford (59) — Jaylin Palmer 0 0-0 0, Kingsley Cockburn 4 0-1 10, Aaron Tomlinson 2 0-0 4, Isaiah Williams 5 4-5 14, Jaden Oliveras 0 0-0 0, Quinton Haughton 0 0-0 0, Austin Nwafor 4 1-2 9, Raquan Tompkins 1 0-0 2, Rafael Cruz 2 1-2 8, Justin Nwafor 6 0-2 12 — Total 25 6-12 59.
3-pointers: Kennedy 7 (Sands 4, Stenson 2, Smith); East Hartford 3 (Cockburn 2, Cruz).
Team records: Kennedy 20-6; East Hartford 23-3.