STORRS>> There was a small scare in the first half for the No. 5 Hartford Public boys basketball team, but a strong second half propelled the undefeated Owls to their 12th win of the season.
Shakeem James led Hartford Public (12-0) with 23 points as the Owls downed E.O. Smith, 74-59 at E.O. Smith High School.
The Panthers (7-7) had four players score in double figures, led by Brandon Desautels and Jackson Meshanic each with 13. Ben Wrana added 12 and Brad Walden 11.
Bench depth played a large role in a game that had 45 fouls called. Hartford Public got in trouble early, but coach Kurt Reis was able to make substitutions at will and protect his players.
“This year we can play nine or 10 guys,” Reis said. “We lost a couple guys from the start of the season for various reasons, but to play nine guys and not lose much is a plus.”
E.O. Smith does not have that luxury.
“My kids get in foul trouble because of their aggressiveness, we stop playing,” E.O. Smith coach Ron Pires said. “We’re afraid we’re going to get that third foul so it takes away from our game, because our big guys stop rebounding, stop playing defense.”
Once 6-foot-5 Rahim Mama (6 points, 9 rebounds and 3 blocks) and 6-foot-3 Jackson Meshanic (7 rebounds) got in foul trouble late in the second quarter, the Owls took advantage. Solomon Wilson-Frame (16 points) hit a three from the wing to tie it at 26 and from there to the halftime buzzer, Hartford Public went on a 15-5 run. Walden hit a 3 with 10 seconds left for E.O. Smith, but the Owls led 38-31.
In the third quarter, the transition offense of Hartford Public finally showed some life. Steals by Jordan Alexander (5 points) and Juwan Gratic (12 points) were key in a 10-0 burst that gave the Owls their largest lead of the game, 55-38.
“When we get out in transition we’re tough, but you have to get stops to get in transition,” Reis said. “So we got more stops in the second half, guys are making great passes getting to the basket and we finished in the second half compared to the first half, we missed a lot of layups.”
Wrana hit a 3 as time expired in the third and then another midway through the fourth, but the Panthers couldn’t get back under 10 points. All 12 of Wrana’s points came from behind the arc. His first two came in consecutive possessions early in the second quarter to give E.O. Smith a 20-18 lead.
“I’m happy with the way we can play at times,” Pires said. “We just don’t sustain it for a long period of time. We don’t stay tough when the going gets tough.”
Hartford Public made nine of 12 free throws down the stretch to secure the victory.
This is the best start for a Hartford Public team since the 2011-12 season when it went 20-0, but lost in the second round of the Class LL tournament.
“Being 11-0 is hard,” Reis said. “Everybody’s got something to say whether it’s, ‘We’re not that good, it’s our schedule.’ We’ve won 12 in a row, call it what you want.”
Hartford Public will put its undefeated record back to the test when it travels to Windsor on Saturday. E.O. Smith is one win shy of qualifying for the state tournament and will get that shot on Tuesday at Fermi.