By Jimmy Zanor
@ShoreLineSports on Twitter
MIDDLETOWN >> It was midway through the second quarter when Middletown sophomore guard Makai Hunter fearlessly drove through the lane and converted a pair of nifty layups, senior O’Brien Watson soared through the air for a monster tip-in, and senior Brandon Simmons muscled in a low post hoop.
Trailing 26-24 at halftime, Bristol Central might have had an inkling that the Blue Dragons were a different club than the one the Rams defeated back on Jan. 13. When Middletown started raining in 3’s in the third quarter, the Rams’ suspicions had become real.
Junior guard Savon Williams led a balanced scoring attack with 11 points, Hunter finished with nine points and Simmons collected eight points, six rebounds and four blocked shots as the Blue Dragons rolled past Bristol Central, 64-57, Tuesday night at Labella-Sullivan Gymnasium.
Middletown (11-5) has now won eight straight since losing by the same score at Bristol Central. The Blue Dragons, winners of 10 of their last 11, have also moved into a first place tie with the Rams in the Central Connecticut Conference’s South Division. Both teams sport 9-2 divisional records.
“They’ve been playing great basketball,” said Bristol Central coach Tim Barrette. “Their guards are young but they’re starting to develop and play well together and you can see that by their record. We haven’t had the most success here at Middletown. I think we’ve won one time here in seven years. It’s a tough place.”
It was another defense-fueled victory for the Blue Dragons, which won the turnover battle again.
“We’ve improved our defense tremendously and that’s been the key,” said Middletown coach Dave Sytulek. “Our press and our man-to-man defense has improved so much and that gets our offense going. We struggled early in the season shooting so we said, if we’re going to score more points we have to score off our defense by getting steals and getting transition baskets. That will take the pressure off us in the half court when we have to set up.”
The Blue Dragons opened the second half with a spirited 14-4 run.
Senior guard Naim Edens got things rolling with a 3-pointer. Junior guard Quincy Kane (six points) came up with a steal and layup, and Williams followed with a top-of-the-key 3 pointer. Sophomore guard Caylen Williams (six points) set up a Williams bucket with a theft and dish from the low post, then capped the spurt with a spinning layup and a pair of free throws to give the Blue Dragons their largest lead at 40-28 with 3:05 left in the third quarter.
“We’re a good offensive team but when if you turn the ball over 20 times that’s 20 lost possessions that you don’t gain an opportunity to score and that can’t happen,” said Barrette. “We have to take care of the basketball. When we give up too many easy hoops to a good team, you’re going to be chasing all night like we were. But plain and simple, we didn’t play our A game.”
Middletown junior guard Jordan Robinson (nine points) buried a pair of long 3-pointers late in the third quarter that helped the Blue Dragons take a 50-43 lead into the fourth.
But Bristol Central (13-3) crept within 52-51 with an 8-2 spurt.
“I know they’re capable of that,” Sytulek said. “We knew it wasn’t over at that point. We were telling the kids to keep playing and keep rebounding and try to limit them to one shot and that’s a tough thing to do because they’ve got some good size.”
The Rams, however, were never able to get the lead in the fourth quarter.
Simmons converted a slick baseline drive and Savon Williams netted a 3-point dagger for a 57-51 advantage.
“Give Middletown some credit,” Barrette added. “They hit some really big shots tonight when we were creeping in.”
The Rams got as close as 60-57 on a pair of free throws from Landin Rutledge (eight points) with 2:13 left to play.
But Savon Williams sank a pair of free throws with 1:08 to go and after senior forward Manny Severino (nine points) missed a 3-pointer, Edens made 1 of 2 from the charity stripe to give the Blue Dragons a 63-57 cushion with only 29 seconds left.
Middletown made just 10 of 21 free throws.
“We didn’t do a great job at the foul line but we did a good enough job to secure the win,” added Sytulek.
Senior forward Jake Collins posted a double-double with 19 points and 10 rebounds, while senior Joe DeFillippi scored 13 points for Bristol Central.
“It’s a huge win for us,” said Sytulek. “That’s a great team that we just beat. We’ve come a long way. These guys have been working so hard in practice. These guys are in a position now where we are tied for first place in the division and that’s because of the hard work and them pulling together. The credit goes to the kids.”