NEW HAVEN >> If a team is going to be able to beat Hillhouse, that squad will need to be able to figure out how to score against the Academics’ defense.
Wilbur Cross had its moments, including a nice comeback in the fourth quarter to keep the end result a little bit in doubt. But overall, top-ranked Hillhouse put the defensive clamps on No. 10 Wilbur Cross 67-56 at the Floyd Little Athletic Center Thursday night.
“That’s who we are. That’s our pedigree, defense first,” Hillhouse coach Renard Sutton said.” The defense was really, really special, but I think rebounding was where we won it.”
Hillhouse (5-0) lines up Christian Adams (6-foot-4), Byron Breland (6-3) and Joey Kasperzyk (6-2) along with Mekhi Warren (6-5) in the starting lineup. That size and length makes it very difficult to get to the basket. Then there’s Tyler Douglas providing ball pressure.
Cross will take its share of jump shots on most nights anyways, but after an early flurry near the rim, jump shots were all the Governors took against the Academics’ defense.
“We showed great resolve down the stretch, but at the end of the day, you have to hit shots,” Cross coach Kevin Walton said. “We missed a lot of shots, good looks, shots we expect to go in.”
The recent history of this rivalry has been about Hillhouse taking away Cross’ top offensive player and making the others try and win the game. On Thursday, Will Antrum, who was averaging close to 22 points per game coming in, hit his only field goal almost at the midway point of the final quarter. He finished with 10 points.
“Will does a lot of other things for us,” Walton said. “They made it tough for him to score but he facilitated a lot. A lot of those passes we did miss shots on came from passes by Will. It’s not predicated all upon him scoring. Bottom line, we have to hit shots.”
And when Hillhouse’s defense is at its suffocating best, it ignites the transition game. Breland’s game-high 24 points included five dunks. Kasperzyk added 15 points.
“We try to rattle the point guard and have him make decisions,” Breland said. “If he overplays it and throws the ball out (wide), we try to capitalize on it (with fast-break opportunities).”
A 15-1 run in the third quarter opened up a 45-24 lead. Cross got some results off its own pressure defense in the fourth and scored as many points (28) in the final period as it had the previous three.
“This is really where you measure yourself,” Walton said. “We are starting to see who we can trust and who we can go to.”
While Walton will use the fourth quarter to build upon, Sutton can’t stress enough the importance of putting teams away.
“That’s the coach’s job. Kids are going to be kids,” Sutton said. “We have to get them back focused to be able to close out games. To be honest, I don’t think we have played a full 32-minute game yet. We’ve been tested early by a lot of strong programs.”
First Middletown, then Xavier, then Cardinal Hayes out of the Bronx, New York, last Friday before having to hang on Tuesday against Career. All different learning experiences for a team that sets its sights on March from day one.
“We want to be considered champions every year,” Sutton said. “We want to play for the championship every year. We want to represent New Haven, we want the city to be ours, we want to represent the state of Connecticut when we go play up in Massachusetts (HoopHall Classic) or we go play down in New York (Cardinal Hayes). I talk to these guys all the time about the pressures we have, the bullseye on our backs. That’s part of who we are and we accept that challenge.”