NEW HAVEN >> Wilbur Cross boys basketball coach Kevin Walton often tells his players about the importance of rebuilding the storied program back to its once elite level.
The Governors have shown flashes of that dominance during Walton’s first three years. On Saturday, they showed it again in a tournament named after the man who helped create the Governors’ legacy.
Robert Durant finished with 31 points and 20 rebounds as ninth-ranked Cross pulled away from Harding 84-63 at home in the first Robert Saulsbury Basketball Invitational. The tournament is named after former coach Bob Saulsbury, who won 497 games and nine state championships during his 28-year coaching career.
“These are the type of kids to build a program with,” Walton said. “It’s great for them to play in front of all this nostalgia tonight as a reminder that Wilbur Cross had been a powerhouse before they were even born. This is about Wilbur Cross. It’s not about me or them as individuals. We’re happy because we think the program is going in the right direction.”
Four people were honored following the first game, a 56-53 win for Sheehan over West Haven: former longtime Harding coach Charlie Bentley, who retired with 655 victories; current Career coach and former Lee High and Syracuse University standout Larry Kelley; former West Haven coach Reggie Hayes and Doug Bethea, founder of the nation’s drill team and a community activist.
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Then Cross came out and scored the game’s first seven points and built a double-digit lead by the end of the first quarter.
“It was a good confidence builder for our team,” Durant said. “We have to battle and we will be all right.”
Durant, a senior, said he played all of last season with a cracked left patella tendon. He didn’t find out until the end of the regular season and missed the postseason, which included a run to the Class L state quarterfinals.
He said he is now at 100 percent following surgery last spring.
“I played the whole season with it. I didn’t know,” Durant said. “I went for a block the last game of the regular season and I was not able to run when I got back up. Pain was never a problem, which is why it was so creepy.”
Cross (2-0) built a 20-point lead (38-18) in the second quarter of a rematch from January’s game won by the Governors. Kwane Taylor and Jaykeen Foreman had 14 and 12 points, respectively, for Cross.
But Harding didn’t go away.
The Presidents kept coming at Cross with full-court pressure and coach Charles Clemons kept shuffling kids in and out of the lineup. The Presidents also kept launching 3-pointers.
In the third quarter, Harding made enough of those 3-pointers to cut the deficit down to single digits. The Presidents got as close as six (58-52) with 6:25 left in the game.
“That’s how we practice, fast tempo,” Clemons said. “Everything in college football is based on pace. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
Cross outscored Harding 26-11 the rest of the game as the Governors were able to break the Presidents’ pressure much easier down the stretch. Durant had 11 of his points in that stretch.
“He is a matchup nightmare,” Clemons said about Durant. “He can bring a big guy out or bring a smaller guy inside. … This was a quiet 30. We tried to keep a body on him, but good players find a way, even on an off-night, so to speak.”
It ended up being a beneficial game for both teams. Very few teams Cross plays employ full-court pressure, while Harding, in its first year playing in the Constitution State Conference after leaving the FCIAC, won’t see anyone on its schedule as good as Cross.
“We are not going to see anyone like this. This will be something I can draw back on as a reference point,” Clemons said.
WILBUR CROSS 84, HARDING 63
(at New Haven)
Harding 12 15 17 19 – 63
Wilbur Cross 25 18 13 28 – 84
Anthony Gadsden 3 2-5 8, Zachary Stewart 0 0-0 0, Tavari Davis 4 0-0 10, Marquis Davis 2 0-3 4, Calvin Seward 2 1-2 5, Justin Sheffield 4 2-4 12, Tremaine Pettway 2 0-0 6, William Figueroa 1 0-0 2, Ramir Johnson 4 3-3 13, Travel Upchurch 0 1-2 1, Cordel Walker 1 0-0 2. Totals: 23 9-19 63
WILBUR CROSS (84)
Malik Alston 3 3-4 9, Robert Durant 10 11-14 31, Kwane Taylor 5 3-5 14, Justin Wagner 2 1-2 5, Jayden Valderama 2 1-2 6, William Antrum 1 2-4 4, Jaykeen Foreman 5 2-4 12, Victor Rosario 1 1-2 3. Totals: 29 24-37 84
3-point goals: Harding 8 (Davis 2, Sheffield 2, Pettway 2, Johnson 2); Wilbur Cross 2 (Taylor 1, Valderama 1); Fouled out: Harding (Seward); Wilbur Cross (Valderrama); Records: Harding 1-1; Wilbur Cross 2-0
Notes: Technical foul: Durant.