CROMWELL — Coach John Pinone has had some very good Cromwell High boys basketball teams through the years, ones good enough to win multiple Shoreline Conference titles and two state championships.
Never, though, has Pinone had a team run the table in the regular season until Monday night, although his squad had to get it done the hard way.
After the Panthers surrendered a double-digit lead entering the fourth quarter, senior Nick Wright hit a turnaround baseline jumper with 28 seconds, got fouled and made the free throw to lift them past Old Lyme 50-48 in front of a sellout crowd at Jake Salafia Gymnasium.
“I wanted the ball in the post the whole night (against Old Lyme center Aedan Using),” said Wright, who scored a game-high 25 points either squaring up to the basket or penetrating Old Lyme’s zone. “He’s a big kid so I tried to back him down a lot, but I was also feeling my shot tonight.”
Using’s 3-point attempt hit the front of the rim as the buzzer sounded, setting off a wild celebration among Cromwell’s players at midcourt.
“We want to win every game,” senior point guard JJ Tracy-Gavin said. “Our goal is not just to win, it’s to win in March. That’s what counts. We never really talked about 20-0.”
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With the Panthers’ 20-0 season comes the top seed in the Shoreline tournament, which starts Saturday, as well as the top seed in the CIAC Division IV tournament. Old Lyme (16-3) has one game left (Morgan) but is locked in as the Shoreline’s No. 2 seed.
Cromwell is 55-5 over the last three regular seasons and has a 24-game overall winning streak. Pinone was not into the numbers Monday knowing his team nearly let this one slip away.
“It’s overblown. Either way, it’s great we’re 20-0, but hey, we didn’t hang a banner, we didn’t get a number, we didn’t win a league title,” he said.
“It’s a great accomplishment for the kids when they look back on it, and a nice way for the seniors to remember senior night, but as I’ve said, I only want to be undefeated in March,” Pinone added.
The Panthers were essentially without their two big men — 6-foot-4 junior Gabe Charleston and reserve Caleb Cain. Cain did not play and Charleston sat out all but 2:39 of the first half with two fouls and all but 1:42 of the third quarter after picking up his third.
Cromwell took a 40-29 lead into the fourth when Tracy-Gavin hit a fallaway 3-pointer in front of his bench with 1.4 seconds left on the clock.
If the Panthers’ fervent fans thought their team would cruise the rest of the way, they would have been mistaken. Cromwell scored only 10 points in the final eight minutes.
Cromwell’s final double-digit lead came courtesy of Charleston, who played the entire fourth quarter. He hit a jumper from the baseline for a 44-34 advantage with 4:37 remaining.
From there, Old Lyme began to chip away. Using swished a 3-pointer, Quinn Romeo made two free throws and Ray Doll hit a jump shot in a span a two-minute stretch to get within 44-41 with 2:24 left.
Tracy-Gavin (nine points) took a hard spill underneath the basket at the other end and made the second of two free throws to push the lead back to four. Doll scored underneath on his team’s next possession, then hit a 3-pointer from the left side after a Cromwell miss for a 46-45 lead — Old Lyme’s first lead since 3-2.
“The kids played harder in the fourth quarter,” Wildcats coach Kirk Kaczor said. “I’m happy with how we battled back in the fourth quarter.”
Wright made a turnaround jumper from the baseline with 1:01 to go and was fouled, but he missed the free throw to keep it a one-point game. Old Lyme got the lead back when Doll made two free throws with 46.1 seconds remaining.
Cromwell took a timeout, then worked the ball around to Wright, who scored again from the baseline despite being fouled, and made the free throw for a 50-48 advantage.
Old Lyme worked the ball around the perimeter — and burned almost 26 seconds doing so. Kaczor called timeout, then Pinone used one. The inbounds pass with 2.2 seconds left went to Using, who spotted up from near the top of the circle, only to see his winning attempt finish short.
“Aedan got off a decent shot for us,” Kaczor said.
Using led Old Lyme with 10 points. With Charleston played less than half the game, Kaczor was hoping his team would have made some ground in the first half and third quarter.
“We had a lot of trouble getting into a flow on offense,” he said. “Cromwell is quick and athletic and they’re strong. We can’t duplicate what they do in practice.”
Pinone said he liked that the ball was in Wright’s hands on the team’s final possession. Wright found enough space and had a shot he liked, and the rest of the final minute played out in Cromwell’s favor.
“When you’re a senior you get that latitude,” Pinone said. “Nick had a mismatch and he is a tough cover. He played a lot of minutes — I don’t think he came out tonight. Obviously the conditioning paid off for him. He looked fresh down the stretch, maybe better than in the middle of the game.”
CROMWELL 50, OLD LYME 48
Olin Fredricks 1 0 2; Quinn Romeo 5 3 13; Ray Doll 5 2 14; Aedan Using 4 1 10 ; Connor Hogan 2 0 4; Jared Ritchie 1 0 2; Liam Holloway 1 1 3. Totals: 20 5 48.
Nai Heyliger 2 3 7; JJ Tracy-Gavin 3 1 9; Jack Dooley 1 0 3; Gabe Charleston 1 0 2; Nick Wright 11 2 25; Tyler Baldwin 1 0 3; Justin Valentin 0 1 1. Totals: 19 7 50.
Old Lyme 7 12 10 19—48
Cromwell 13 9 18 10—50
3-pointers: C—Tracy-Gavin 2, Wright, Dooley, Baldwin; OL—Doll 2, Using.