WEST HAVEN — You had to wonder if Hillhouse would ever turn its boys basketball season around.
It’s been a struggle for the proud program, suffering through as many losses that in the glory days wouldn’t happen over the course of three seasons. But maybe, just maybe, there are signs that the Academics have figured things out.
A solid end to the regular season has carried over to the postseason for Hillhouse. A good defensive effort, and a game-high 20 points by Ta’zhon Daniels, helped lead the ninth-seeded Academics past No. 8 West Haven 65-58 Thursday night in the opening round of the Southern Connecticut Conference tournament.
“I thought through most of the season, they (the Academics) weren’t playing hard, but I think they are finally buying into the hard play,” Hillhouse coach Renard Sutton said.
Hillhouse (12-9) will now face top seed Notre Dame-West Haven in the quarterfinals Saturday at 11 a.m. at Branford High. Notre Dame won the first two matchups, including a buzzer-beating layup by Connor Raines.
“We will go in there and give it all we got,” Sutton said. “That second game, we gave to them. We believe we beat them on the floor. If we come out with that same energy we have had the past four games, I like our chances.”
The intrigue surrounding Thursday night’s game was more off the court. West Haven coach Ty Sullivan has had plenty of success in his first season after spending over a decade as an assistant under first Kermit Carolina, then Sutton at his alma mater.
And once the game concluded, there were plenty of hugs to go around among the coaching staff for both teams.
“If I had to lose to anybody, it would be Coach Sutton,” Sullivan said. “They (the coaching staff) were all in my wedding. They are all my brothers. And I’m pretty sure (Sutton) feels the same way.”
Said Sutton, “For me it was bittersweet. The bitter side was I had to play a loved one. The sweet side was at the end of the day, everyone is trying to get to Saturday. Ty understands that, I understand that. He has a wonderful program out here.”
Hillhouse, which never trailed against West Haven (12-9) and hit nine 3-pointers, concentrated its defensive efforts on Quannel Straughter, a former player for the Academics. The rotation of Daniels, Evan Alexander Scott and Jacari Douglas helped hold Slaughter to just two points.
“He is a heckuva player, I’ve been watching him play for a lot of years,” Sutton said about Straughter.
Said Sullivan: “I think Quannel pushed things a little too hard against these guys.”
But despite that, West Haven had several chances to get back into the game. Its last chance came with Hillhouse up 60-48 with 1:42 left.
The Westies trimmed it to six, 63-57, with 38.5 seconds left, then forced a Hillhouse turnover 10 seconds later. But West Haven missed a shot, then let too much time com off the clock until Daniels was finally fouled with 9.8 seconds remaining.
“I think the better team won tonight. I think those guys wanted it a little bit more than we did,” Sullivan said. “We had a defensive game plan that we didn’t execute. We should have been there to contest some of those shots. They hit big shots in key moments. I have to prepare my guys for these situations.”
Hillhouse held a 11-10 lead after one quarter despite shooting just 2 of 16 from the floor. But then the Academics started to pick things up, hitting four 3-pointers in the second quarter.
A 17-4 run opened up a 31-17 lead for the Academics in the quarter. West Haven managed to get the deficit down to eight (32-24) by halftime.
Hillhouse 65, West Haven 58
Hillhouse (12-9) 11 21 11 22 — 65
West Haven (12-9) 10 14 13 21 — 58
Cincere Lash 2 0 1-4 5, Jacari Douglas 0 1 2-2 5, Evan Alexander-Scott 1 1 1-2 6, Turcone Kelley 4 2 0-0 14, Janden Satchell 1 0 3-4 5, K. Francis 0 3 1-2 10, Tazhon Daniels 2 2 10-12 20
West Haven (12-9-0)
Jordan Berrios 0 0 0-1 0, Muffee Cooper 3 2 4-6 16, Quannel Straughter 1 0 0-2 2, Jamel Lowery 1 0 3-3 5, Laron Holmes 3 0 3-4 9, Tyrese Hargrove 2 1 0-1 7, Malcolm Duuncanson 5 0 9-11 19
3-point goals: Hillhouse 9 (Francis 3, Daniels 2, Douglas , Scott, Kelley 2); West haven 3 (Cooper 2, Hargrove)