MIDDLETOWN >> The Middletown boys basketball team certainly gave a boisterous matinee crowd something to cheer about on Martin Luther King Day.
Powered by a trio of high-flying dunks, some terrific shooting from senior guard Antonio White and a smothering defense fueled by sophomore Makai Hunter, the Blue Dragons ran away from Berlin, 54-46 in a CCC South battle Monday at the LaBella-Sullivan gymnasium.
Middletown evened its record to 5-5 with its fourth win in their last five games.
“We’ve turned it around,” said Blue Dragons coach Dave Sytulek. “We’re playing much better basketball and we’re looking to hopefully continue that.”
White scored all of his game-high 18 points in the second half, including a brilliant stretch early in the fourth quarter where he sandwiched a pair of 3-point bombs with a fast break dunk to give the Blue Dragons a 41-35 lead with 4:38 left to play.
“(White) played with a lot of enthusiasm in the second half,” said Sytulek. “He got out on the fast break and was the recipient of a couple of passes up ahead. We had a couple of steals off the pressure and he finished strong.”
Redcoats junior guard Danny Garofalo drained his fourth 3-pointer to close the gap to 41-38. But Blue Dragons senior Brandon Simmons (11 points) spun in the lane for a layup and that started a decisive 9-1 spurt.
Sophomore guard Caylen Wiliams (11 points) converted a short jumper, Hunter added a layup off a backcourt steal, and a free throw and fast break hoop from White gave the Blue Dragons a 50-39 lead with just 1:49 remaining.
“In the second half, our emphasis was to come out and continue to pressure the ball like we did and try to get out and run,” Sytulek explained. “We did a much better job of boxing out and locating their shooters a little bit more, and that enabled us to get out and fast break and get the lead that we needed.”
The Blue Dragons were also intent on stopping Berlin’s talented junior forward and leading scorer Brendon Vessichio (eight points).
“Our main focus was to stop Vessichio,” said Sytulek. “He’s their best player and he had only one field goal, which was huge. I thought Makai Hunter did a fantastic job on him. We were playing a junk defense with a man on him and the other guys in a zone. We wanted to try and take the ball out of his hands and make other guys hurt us. And in the first half a couple of those guys did.”
Especially Garofalo, who came off the bench and helped the Redcoats rally from an early 11-point deficit by swishing a pair of corner treys, including a first half buzzer-beater that tied it at 18.
The teams traded baskets in the third quarter until Middletown forged ahead in the final minute when Simmons made a layup and then set down a spectacular alley-oop dunk off a steal and pass from White. Simmons was fouled on the play and his free throw gave the Blue Dragons a 32-27 lead.
But Garofalo, who had a team-high 15 points, sank another 3-pointer with just 48 seconds left and the Blue Dragons led 32-30 after three.
Sophomore guard Evan McKinnen added 12 points, while sophomore forward Dominic Nuzzo had nine points and six rebounds for Berlin (2-8).
“We don’t finish games,” said Berlin coach Mike Veneziano. “That’s why our record is what it is. We wanted to play defense for 60 minutes not 32 minutes and that was the difference in the game.”
Sophomore O’Brien Watson, who had three blocked shots, capped the Blue Dragons big holiday win with a slam dunk with just 15 seconds left that sent the Middletown student section into bedlam, a frenzied state that didn’t end until after they stormed the court following the final buzzer.