EAST HAVEN >> For the third straight Class L state tournament game, the Career boys basketball game fell behind early and had to make the long climb back to within striking distance.
The Panthers pulled games out against Hand in the second round and Maloney in the quarterfinals. But Career ran out of magic in Wednesday’s semifinal.
Seventh-seeded Naugatuck never trailed and held off No. 3 Career’s rally to win 65-61 before approximately 1,400 at East Haven High.
“We never let ourselves get comfortable with that play-from-behind stuff,” Career coach Larry Kelley said. “The importance of the game itself, the team we played and we are our own worst enemy, sit there and wait until the last minute. You can’t do that time in and time out and expect to come out on top.”
It is the first appearance in a state final for the Greyhounds (21-5) since 1974. On Sunday at the Mohegan Sun Arena, they will face either Bunnell or Bassick, seeking their first state championship since 1942.
“The coaches are excited, all the students and fans are super-excited, we are super-excited,” guard Jarron Chapman said. “It’s my first time going to the Mohegan Sun in my four years of high school basketball and right now, I can’t tell you what I feel like. Shocked.”
Said Naugatuck coach Mike Wilson, a former Greyhound himself: “This was our goal when we took this program over five years ago. … I kept telling the boys, ‘We could do something special, something you will remember for the rest of your lives if we just put it together’ and they are seeing it now.”
Chapman, who led Naugatuck with 25 points, including the last basket on a breakaway layup in the final seconds as the Panthers (24-4) were looking to steal the inbounds pass. Jason Bradley, the school’s quarterback for the football team, made the baseball pass to Chapman that set off the celebration just seconds later in what was a home-court advantage for Naugatuck.
“I looked at Jason Bradley, he has a good arm and I trust him. He led me and I finished,” Chapman said.
Career tied the game twice in the second quarter, but never drew even in the second half.
The Panthers were down 11 (56-45) with just over 3 minutes left before making one final comeback attempt.
“We know how explosive Career is,” Wilson said. “I thought it would be really difficult to chase them tonight. One of our points of emphasis was making sure we didn’t start out in a hole.”
The Panthers, a finalist in this division last season, were able to get within two points in the final minute on baskets from Tyreek Perkins (game-high 26 points) and Tyrell Eaddy, the last making it 63-61. Then it was Bradley to Chapman for the final points.
“I tell my kids teams like this come around only every once in a while so you have to take advantage of that. I think we let it slip away from us a little bit,” Kelley said. “The kids run through walls for me. As their coach, I commend them and I love them. They fought a good fight.”
Dayvon Russell made 8 of 9 free throws in the fourth quarter to help Naugatuck prevail. The Greyhounds will face the winner of No. 5 Bunnell and No. 9 Bassick, which will be played Thursday night at 7 p.m. at Trumbull High.
NAUGATUCK 65, CAREER 61
(at East Haven)
Naugatuck 16 11 17 21 – 65
Career 9 11 15 26 – 61
Dayvon Russelle 5 8-9 18, Jason Bradley 4 0-0 12, Jarron Chapman 11 3-5 25, CJ Wall 3 1-3 7, Fejiro Onakpoma 1 1-2 3. Totals: 24 13-19 65
Tyreek Perkins 9 4-4 26, Tyrell Eaddy 3 2-4 8, Danny Ampofo 2 2-2 6, Kevin Smith 4 2-3 11, Justin Campbell 5 0-2 10, Will Jackson 0 0-0 0. Totals: 23 10-15 61
3-point goals: Naugatuck 4 (Bradley 4); Career 5 (Perkins 4, Smith 1); Records: Naugatuck 21-5; Career 24-4