MIDDLETOWN >> Middletown High is going to the Final Four in Class L.
The third-ranked Blue Dragons defeated No. 6 Pomperaug of Southbury, 76-67, in a quarterfinal round game before a roaring sellout crowd of better than 1,000 Friday night at the LaBella-Sullivan Gymnasium.
Middletown (23-3) will play Newington (23-1) Tuesday at Berlin High at 7 p.m. in the semifinal round
“The energy of the fans, the electricity of the crowd helped us,” Middletown coach Rick Privott said. “The kids responded to the crowd and their opponent very well.”
Middletown led at every turn and three times had leads of 13 points, once in the second quarter at 40-27 and twice in the third quarter at 50-37 and 55-42. But Pomperaug (18-5) got off the deck at the end of the third and into the fourth.
The Panthers knocked the lead down to 57-51 after three, then, on back-to-back dunks by Josh McGettigan and Noah Miree, cut the lead to 61-59 with 5:17 to go.
A free throw and a basket by Makai Hunter (12 points) gave MHS a 64-59 lead, and buckets by DeAaron Lawreence (22 points) and Caylen Williams (20 points) put the Dragons up 68-60 with 1:45 left to play.
That’s when Middletown played stall ball and forced Pomperaug to foul. The Dragons were deadly from the stripe.
Middletown was 8-for-8 from the line in the final 55 seconds to seal a trip to the semifinals.
“I think when you fight so hard to come back after being down double digits, it’s hard to keep that going,” Pomperaug coach Dave Yachtis said. “Then we had to foul and they made their shots. Heck, no matter who we fouled, they made them.”
Lawrence made two freebies with 55 seconds left, and that was followed by two by Hunter, two by Ahmod Privott (13 points) and two by Lawrence again.
“We practice them every day,” Williams said. “Coach tries to replicate crowd noise with loud music and other noise. We shoot them like in game situations every day. When they got within two, I tried to remain calm. I just reminded the other guys that we still had the lead. I think that’s important for me to do that.”
Middletown was 18-for-23 from the line and 10 of 11 in the fourth quarter.
“We kept our composure when they made their run,” Privott said. “We wanted them tired in the fourth quarter; we were motivated to take their legs away from them. I’m not sure that did it, but we were able to withstand their run and make the free throws.
“I am comfortable with our kids at the line in those spots. It’s also important that we had just four turnovers for the game. As I tell the kids, you make free throws and don’t turn the ball over, you have a pretty good chance to win.”
Middletown trailed twice, once at 8-6 in the first quarter and at 23-22 with 5:45 left in the first half. Both times the Dragons responded.
When the Panthers went ahead 8-6, Middletown immediately took the lead back on a three-pointer by Williams and led 19-15 after one.
When Pomperaug went ahead 23-22, Middletown closed the half with a 20-7 run highlighted by four three-pointers by Lawrence. Williams had 11 and Lawrence had 14 in the first half, with all of Lawrence’s points coming in the second quarter.
The Blue Dragons maintained a 9-13 point lead for much of the third quarter before five consecutive free throws — three by Rick Pugliese after he was fouled shooting a trey — and a basket by Chris Baldwin sliced Middletown’s lead to six just before the quarter ended.
“I thought we played very well,” Yachtis said. “I thought we handled their inside game pretty well, but they were able to get the ball back outside for their shooters. I also thought we rebounded well and for a lot of the game, we held our own.”
Both teams had four players in double figures. Lawrence’s 22 led all scorers, Baldwin led Pomperaug with 20, McGettigan had 15, Wallace had 12 and Pugliese had 11.
Pomperaug had eight treys and Middletown had seven. The Blue Dragons were 23-for-51 from the floor for 45 percent, with Lawrence making 6-of-8. Hunter had eight assists and two steals.
Besides punching a ticket to the semifinals, the game carried more meaning for Middletown.
“I reminded the kids that we hadn’t done anything more this year than we did last year,” Privott said. “We were 22-4 last year, lost in the semis of the CCC tourney and lost in the quarterfinals last year. If we lost tonight, it would have been last year all over again.
“I have been pumping the kids up all week. Maybe it worked. Now with Newington we’re facing a team that beat us early when we had a couple of kids out, but they’re a very good team. We will have to shoot the ball well, but we’re looking forward to the challenge.”