UNCASVILLE – Innovation coach Matt Lance said Saturday’s CIAC Division V championship belonged to his players. Carlos Gonzalez, Innovation’s senior point guard, thought the fans deserved a piece of it.
The undercurrent of family at the Academy of Science and Innovation magnet school in New Britain was unmistakable Saturday after the top-seeded Ravens defeated No. 3 Old Lyme 62-41 at Mohegan Sun Arena. The Ravens put a bow on a 24-2 season that included the Capital Region Athletic League regular-season and tournament titles.
Both programs were making their first appearance in a state tournament final. Old Lyme’s program has been around for decades. This was just the sixth varsity season for Innovation.
“To see where we are now,” said Lance, who has coached the Ravens four of their five years, “it almost (hasn’t) hit me. I’m kind of in disbelief.”
Lester Manuel scored a game-high 15 points for the Ravens, who overcame a game-opening 10-2 run by Old Lyme, took the lead for good midway through the second quarter and never looked back.
“We come from a small school, but everyone in the school wanted this to happen,” said Gonzalez, who took the championship plaque, ran toward the throng of Ravens and held it above his head for all to see. We had a pep rally on Friday and everybody was into it. We couldn’t do it without them. The fans are like our sixth man. They’re part of the team. “
The Ravens shot 52 percent from the field. L.J Hazelwood had 14 points and a game-high nine rebounds for Innovation and Ramiesh Bogle added 11 points, eight rebounds, five assists and four steals. Gonzalez chipped in seven points, five rebounds and three assists.
Brady Sheffield and Ray Doll scored 11 points each to lead Old Lyme.
The early advantage Old Lyme (21-6) built fell away quickly when the Ravens began to apply pressure in the open court. They were relentless, and when the Wildcats broke the press they struggled mightily from the floor – 14 of 56 (25 percent) for the game, with only nine field goals in the last three quarters.
Old Lyme also could not take advantage of second chances. They had 36 rebounds, 19 on the offensive end.
“I think the big issue is we tried to score too quickly instead of taking it possession by possession,” coach Kirk Kaczor said. “We didn’t play our best basketball. Their defense causes a lot of that because they play such harassing defense. Sometimes we made good penetration, but we just couldn’t finish anything.
“Between that and their defensive pressure causing turnovers, we had a rough day.”
The first quarter ended with Gonzalez hitting a 3-pointer at the horn for Innovation’s first lead, 12-10. Old Lyme didn’t score over the final 3:33 of the quarter.
“Once it went up in the air, I knew it was going down,” Gonzalez said.
The Wildcats’ last sniff of the lead came when junior guard Brady Sheffield scored underneath to tie it at 13 with 6:21 to go in the first half. From there, a 17-5 run by the Ravens, capped by Bogle’s 3-point shot, gave them their biggest lead of the half, 30-18 with 1:48 left.
Old Lyme went to the break only down seven after scoring the final five points of the half on buckets by Aedan Using and Ritchie and a free throw by Olin Frederiks.
Innovation’s defense limited any major impact Using tried to have, especially close to the rim. The high-scoring junior center finished with eight points on 3 of 13 shooting.
“Everyone knows about Aedan and he fights for what he gets all the time. They did a good job on him,” Kaczor said.
Old Lyme’s hope of adding to its end-of-half spurt at the start of the third quarter and getting back into the game did not come to pass. Innovation held the Wildcats scoreless until the 3:45 mark while tacking on eight points for a 38-23 lead, its largest of the game at that point.
Lance challenged his players at halftime to turn it up a few notches, especially on the glass, and he called their second-half performance on that end “special.”
Old Lyme got no closer than 12 – 44-32 on one of two free throws by Using – with 55.7 seconds left in the third quarter.
“We were up seven and coach told us it was nowhere near the potential we can play at,” Gonzalez said. “We knew if they were going to hit us, we had to hit harder. It was a battle of the boards. Whoever did the dirty work and got the loose balls was going to come out on top.”
Frederiks, one of three seniors in Old Lyme’s regular rotation, said he was proud to have made it to the program’s first state final. The team’s run to the championship was especially gratifying, he said, after parents and current and past players convinced the district to keep Kaczor as coach after his contract was not renewed initially last summer.
“Looking back on the year as a whole, our team really came together and played for each other and played together. We cared about each other more than anything. It just goes to show how much of a family our team really is,” Frederiks said.
“Coach has always said, ‘These kids are part of my family.’ I personally believe our situation is very unique after what happened last summer. It just shows how much we care about each other and value each other.”