WALLINGFORD >>Valley Regional is going to play for a state boys basketball championship.
The Warriors will be going to the title game for the third time in four years — they won last year — and will be looking to add a third title to their resume when they take on Mustapha Heron and Sacred Heart of Waterbury at Mohegan Sun this weekend.
Valley saw to that by beating Shoreline Conference rival Cromwell 61-57 Tuesday night in a dramatic Class S semifinal round game played before more than 1,200 howling fans at Sheehan High School.
The game came down to the final 44 seconds — an agonizing 44 seconds for Cromwell and its fans.
The game was tied 57-57 when Cromwell put the ball in play following a timeout with 44 seconds left. But with 35 seconds left, Cromwell guard Deandre Hamblin simply lost the ball. Valley disdained waiting for the final shot and Chris Jean-Pierre (13 points) scored with a half minute to go to give Valley (21-7) a two-point lead.
Cromwell’s Josh Green missed with 25 seconds to go, but Valley turned the ball over with 21 seconds showing on the clock.
Cromwell set up a play, Hamblin drove under the hoop, but he passed it back out — to no one. The ball went into the stands with 7 seconds left.
Cromwell immediately fouled Dave Bradbury, who absolutely killed the Panthers with 25 points this night, but he missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with five seconds on the clock. Valley’s Hunter Linfesty grabbed the rebound, was fouled and made both to send Cromwell home.
“We played the best defense we’ve played all year,” said Valley coach Kevin Woods. “And Bradbury was tremendous. He makes us go on offense and has so much energy on defense. He was 11th on the depth chart coming into the season, but he worked his way to be our point guard.
“Everyone said we couldn’t replace Jonathan Luster, but we did.”
Time and again Bradbury hit big shots, five of them three-pointers.
“Great players make great plays,” said Woods.
Valley was forced to play without their star, Jean-Pierre for over 14 minutes of the first half because he picked up two quick fouls to start the game.
“That we went 14 and a half minutes without him shows our composure and our poise,” said Woods. “To be tied at half 23-23 was huge. Jean Pierre is a stud.”
Cromwell fell behind by eight points in the third quarter at 40-32 and trailed by seven at 45-38 with six and a half minutes left. But the Panthers came roaring back and took a 55-52 lead on a trey by Matt Turkington with three minutes left.
But Bradbury scored a hoop, then drained a three to give the Warriors a 57-55 lead.
With a chance to out Cromwell ahead, Josh Green missed to free throws and although the Panthers came back to tie on a tip of his own miss by Turkington with 1:25 left, the Panthers run stopped at 57.
“We looked like we were tentative at times,” said Cromwell coach John Pinone. “We missed so many easy shots for the first three quarters. You cant miss shots like we did, but as bad as we were offensively, we got the lead. We just let it get away.
“We missed two free throws and we had those two unforced turnovers in the last 44 seconds. Heck, we didn’t get off a shot. We didn’t give ourselves a chance to win. We wanted to get it down to 14 or 15 seconds, then take another timeout to set it up for the final play. This feels like one that got away.”
Turkington led Cromwell with 16 points, Mike McNally had 15 and Green had 12.
Cromwell finished 25-3 with two losses coming to Valley.