NEWINGTON >> Some players just ooze energy and excitement on the basketball court. They are the ones you go to see.
Newington senior Jared Simmons is one of those players.
Clinging to a three-point lead at the start of the second half, Simmons flew in from the left side of the court when he saw a jump-shot that was not going to fall. He made sure the basketball would go through the net with a vicious dunk.
That play sent the Newington fan section into a frenzy and propelled the team on a run that it would not look back from as the 11th-seeded Indians held off 22nd-seeded North Haven 55-44 in the first round of the Class L state tournament at home, the Richard E. Rogalski Gymnasium.
“It’s a big thing to have first round,” Simmons said of playing with home court advantage. “And with this win we get a lot of excitement going in Thursday.”
Simmons scored a game-high 22 points and big man Matt McKinnon pitched in 19, with 12 coming in the second half as Newington pulled away.
The play that ignited the home team came after North Haven cut its deficit to one on a Jack Steinman 3-pointer with 7:04 left in the third quarter. But almost two minutes later Simmons flew along the baseline and sent Newington on an 12-2 run which closed out the third quarter and gave it a 36-25 lead.
“Guys really dug in in the second half,” Newington coach Scot Wenzel said. “We were able to pressure them, they missed some shots and we were able to get some turnovers and that leads us on the fast break and that’s what we want to do.”
But the other thing that Simmons and his team did well in the second half was distribute the basketball.
“Their energy was a lot better,” North Haven coach Justin Falcon said. “They stepped up their intensity and we needed to do a better job at being able to execute when things like that happen.”
Simmons finished with five assists, but created many more opportunities for his teammates in the paint.
“They started to double-team me a little bit,” Simmons said. “That opened my teammates up for either 3s or layups for McKinnon.”
McKinnon did his job on the boards as well as he collected 13 rebounds and turned many of them into second chance points.
“It’s no secret,” Wenzel said. “We want to get the ball inside to Matt McKinnon as much as possible. He did a great job, even when we weren’t able to get him the ball, he was getting rebounds and put-backs for us.”
North Haven was essentially forced into a full-court pressure defense as the second half wore on, but Newington had limited issues with it and converted many easy buckets in transition.
“We were trying to take some more chances defensively,” Falcon said. “And when you take a chance that gives them a better offensive opportunity.”
The closest North Haven got in the fourth quarter was down eight, 41-33 with 6:09 remaining, but it just could get some late shots to fall and in the process ending the season.
“We had a bunch of open 3s that didn’t fall down,” Falcon said.
Newington 55, North Haven 44
North Haven: 13 7 5 19 — 44
Newington: 13 11 12 19 — 55
(at Newington HS)