HARTFORD >> Top-ranked Sacred Heart used a huge fourth quarter to pull away and defeat fourth-ranked Middletown, 70-56, in front of a near-sellout of 1,500 in a Class L semifinal game played at the Babe Allen Field House at Bulkeley High School Thursday evening.
The Sacred Heart win sent the Hearts to their fourth-consecutive state championship game and sets up an all-Catholic school Class L final as Notre Dame of Fairfield defeated Wilton 81-61 in the other semifinal.
This will be the second-consecutive time the two teams have met in the state championship. Sacred Heart beat the Lancers in last year’s Class M final. The two previous years, the Hearts won back-to-back Class S titles.
The semifinal game with Middletown was close through the first three quarters. The Hearts, who ran their win streak against Connecticut teams to 82 (Middletown still holds the all-time overall Connecticut win streak of 80), led 17-14 after one and 32-25 at the half.
Sacred Heart briefly opened up a nine-point lead in the third quarter at 36-27 before Middletown went on an 11-2 run to take a 38-36 lead on a basket by DeAaron Lawrence (14 points) with 1:40 left in the quarter.
But Sacred Heart recovered to score the quarter’s final four points to lead 40-38 going to the final eight minutes.
That’s when Middletown stopped scoring.
For the first five and half minutes of the third quarter, Sacred Heart outscored the Blue Dragons 18-6 to take a 58-44 lead with 2:12 left and the game was over. Ahmod Privott scored to cut the lead to 58-46, but that was as close as the Dragons could get.
— CT Sports Now (@CT_Sports_Now) March 17, 2017
“We’ve been in that spot before,” said Sacred Heart’s’ Legend Johnson, who scored 16 points. “We’ve become accustomed to coming from behind. We know what to do.”
Both coaches credited the Sacred Heart defense.
“In between the third and fourth quarters, we switched our defense from man-to-man to a triangle-and-two,” Sacred Heart coach John Carroll said. “We saw when New London did that it bothered Middletown. We put someone on Privott and Lawrence and it was effective.”
Said Middletown coach Rick Privott, “The ball stopped dropping in the fourth quarter and I thought we got careless with our shot selection. But their defense was solid, so credit their defense. They also hit shots and made their free throws down the stretch.”
The Hearts pulled the ball out with a lead in the fourth quarter, forcing Middletown to foul. Sacred Heart responded by making 15-of-16 freebies in the fourth quarter and 23-of-26 overall.
The game high scorer was Sacred Heart’s Isaiah Gaiter, a former player at Xavier and Platt who had 23 points, including eight free throws. Gaiter had 11 points in the first half, tying Middletown’s Tyshuan James who also had 11 in the first half. James finished with 17 points to lead Middletown which finished 22-5.
“I thought Tyshaun played Gaiter well,” Privott said of James. “Overall he played very well.”
Ahmod Privott, who scored the 1000th point of his career on a 3-pointer in the third quarter that brought Middletown to within a point at 36-35, had an off-night, scoring just seven points.
“Ahmod had a tough shooting night,” said coach Privott. “He was chasing Gaiter early and we took him off him. But overall we had a tough time getting the shots we normally get.
“It seemed like we could never quite get over the hump. We would get close and they would score and pull away. Then when we did take the lead, we made a couple of mistakes and they got four quick points at the end of the quarter. Can’t make mistakes like that against a good team.”
Middletown was unquestionably hurt when guard Aveon Woods was injured with 4:31 left in the third quarter. To that point he had scored seven points, but did not return.
“Losing him hurt because it changed our rotation,” Privott said. “We had to use players in spots we wouldn’t have.”
Middletown led early as Lawrence opened the game with 3-pointer. James had eight points in the quarter and brought MHS to within a point on two free throws late. But Michael West’s layup rolled in as the buzzer sounded to give the Hearts a 17-14 lead after one.
As Privott said, Middletown closed the gap again in the second quarter and on two free throws by James with 2:35 showing closed to 27-25, but again the Hearts answered with a 5-0 run to close the half.
Middletown made its run in the third, only to see Sacred Heart close the quarter with four consecutive points. Omar Rowe (16 points) scored two baskets to give Sacred Heart a 44-38 lead to open the fourth, but a trey by Dayquan Singletary (seven points) cut the lead to 44-41.
It was Middletown’s last gasp as Johnson answered with a three-pointer, keying a 15-3 run that sealed the win for Sacred Heart.
Sacred Heart moves onto play Notre Dame once again in the state final, only this time in the Class L final. The Hearts beat the Lancers 101-49 in last year’s Class M final, led by Mustapha Heron (now at Auburn) and Tyrn Flowers (now at UMass).
The Hearts are 27-0, but they lost their top player, Raheem Solomon, to a knee injury before the tournament began.
“After Raheem went down, we decided that we would make that loss up with defense,” Carroll said. “We dedicated ourselves to being a defensive team.”
As for Middletown, it fell just one game short of returning to the Class L final. “I think we had a great season,” said James, who will play football at Southern Connecticut State. “I finally was able to shake the football rust off and play well. I had the support of my teammates and I’m very proud of Ahmod’s 1000th point.
“But tonight Sacred Heart just hit their shots and made their free throws.”