STRATFORD — The Harding boys basketball team hoped to be paired against Stratford in the first round of the Division III state tournament for a very practical reason — a game against the Red Devils meant a short, two-mile bus ride.
Playing as an independent left the Presidents with numerous long trips across Connecticut to find games this season. Players said the time spent on the bus impacted their performances.
The short trip Monday night helped No. 21 Harding race out to a quick start and hold off a furious second-half comeback bid by Stratford to win 62-61.
“Bus rides kill your legs during the games,” said Presidents’ senior Zamir Hairston, who scored a game-high 20 points. “Sitting on the bus for so long, you have dead legs when you come out, so you have to get a good stretch in.”
The victory moves Harding (10-11) into the second round. Its opponent is No. 5 Enfield, which means a 70-mile bus ride north, not that the Presidents should mind since it means their season will continue.
Harding started quickly and scored the game’s first eight points. The Presidents’ advantage swelled to as large as 17 points midway through the second quarter via a free throw by Xavier McBride. Harding led 38-26 at the break.
After halftime No. 12 Stratford rallied. The Red Devils forced numerous turnovers and used their defense to stop the Presidents from getting to the basket.
John Bike’s steal at midcourt and subsequent 3-point play brought Stratford all the way back and put the Red Devils ahead 46-45 after three quarters.
“We came out after halftime lackadaisical,” Hairston said. “We ended up picking up in the fourth.”
Harding scored the first six points of the fourth to retake the lead. Stratford pulled it to 58-56 on a pair of free throws by junior Jack Ryan. Ryan led Stratford with 19 points. Mike August scored 14 for the Red Devils while Joe August added 13 .
With under a minute left and the score 60-58, Harding missed the front end of a 1-and-1. Stratford wound up with possession and a chance to tie or take the lead, but turned the ball over on an inbounds when the official judged the ball had gone off a Red Devils player under the basket.
Harding closed it out with a pair of free throws by Marcell Robinson. Ryan drained a 35-footer as time expired to close the final margin.
Robinson finished with 14 points.
“Sometimes that’s the ebb and flow of the game,” Harding coach John Bagley said. “The whole objective is to bend, but not break. We down one, we hung in there and got the lead and stayed with it.”
Stratford ended its season at 11-11. The Red Devils started only one senior — Sean Carroll — on Monday night.
“I have four starters coming back,” Stratford coach Tim Swaller said. “We’re young in some spots, but it still hurts. These kids have worked hard and put a lot of time and effort into it. To come up short like that hurts.”
PLAYER OF THE GAME
Zamir Houston, Harding. The senior scored a game-high 20 points and also made a pair of important free throws late in the fourth quarter.
“It’s an opportunity for our seniors to extend their season and the thing I try to tell them is that this is the best time of year. The rest of the time was good, but this is the best time right now.” — Harding coach John Bagley on his team advancing to the second round.
HARDING 62, STRATFORD 61
Keith Bush 2 1-2 7 Xavier McBride 0 2-4 2 Marcel Robinson 6 2-2 14 David Council 1 0-2 2 Zamir Hairston 6 5-8 20 Tion Hampton 0 0-2 0 Ricardo Charles 2 0-0 4 Tra’Vel Upchurch 5 2-2 13 John Hypolite 0 0-0 0 Tae’Ron Womack 0 0-0 0 Leon Hanley 0 0-0 0 Totals: 22 12-22 62
Jack Ryan 7 4-4 19 Mike August 4 5-5 14 Joe August 5 0-0 13 Sean Carroll 3 0-0 8 John Bike 2 1-1 5 Aaron Christy 1 0-0 2 Jaahdel Cyril 0 0-0 0 Totals: 22 10-10 61
HARDING 18 20 7 17—62
STRATFORD 7 19 20 15—61
3-pointers: H—Bush 2, Hairston 3, Upchurch S—Ryan, M. August, J. August 3, Carroll.
Fouled out: H—Upchurch