NEW HAVEN — Renard Sutton called it as he saw it: his Hillhouse Academics had underachieved this season.
But that’s the beauty of the postseason: a chance of redemption. And what better way to achieve that than to beat your city rival six days removed from winning an SCC championship?
And that’s exactly what happened Tuesday night at Saulsbury Court. No. 18 seed Hillhouse scored nine straight points in the final 1:20 of the game to hold off No. 15 Cross 55-45 in the opening round of the Division I state tournament.
“Elm City basketball is always a big deal,” Sutton said. “The kids wanted to come in today and prove themselves worthy. … I think this season as a program we underachieved. Coming in wounded, playing on their home floor, these guys came in and refused to lose.”
Hillhouse’s best performance of the season came in the first matchup against Cross, a 26-point win. But things went downhill after that and the Academics (13-10) ended up with a No. 9 seed in the SCC tournament.
Hillhouse beat West Haven, then fell to Notre Dame-West Haven in the SCC tournament quarterfinals. The Academics get a fourth crack at Notre Dame Wednesday night in the second round at Shelton High. Game time is 7 p.m.
— Joe Morelli (@nhrJoeMorelli) March 6, 2019
Notre Dame won all three of the previous matchups.
“We are going to go in there and try to do the same thing,” Sutton said.
Hillhouse never trailed despite going long stretches without scoring, including one drought that lasted close to seven minutes. But its zone defense befuddled Cross. Enasj Jones was held scoreless in the first half and Kyle Daniels scored just three points.
“We frustrated them. They couldn’t get the shots that they wanted,” Hillhouse guard Ta’Zhon Daniels said. “We beat them before, and we could beat them again. … ”
Said Cross guard Kyle Daniels: “They wanted it more. They were more hungry. We came out slow. We played like we would have had another game regardless.”
The deficit grew to as many as 14 points in the third quarter.
“Hillhouse just played a little more desperate. Our kids didn’t play well. We didn’t respond to the moment,” Wilbur Cross coach Kevin Walton said. “We had our opportunities and it didn’t work out. We wish they had played with that same sense of desperation they had in the fourth quarter from the start of the game.”
During one of Hillhouse’s dry spells to start the fourth quarter, the Governors (16-8) got back into it. An 11-2 run cut the deficit to two points, 43-41.
Cross was within two points on two other occasions, the last at 46-44 with 1:45 left. But the Governors never were able to tie it.
Eddie Langs, Jacari Douglas, Daniels and Evan Scott Alexander all hit free throws down the stretch to seal the win.
All of that was accomplished without Cincere Lash, who had fouled out for Hillhouse. Lash scored 19 consecutive points for Hillhouse in the first half — outscoring the entire Cross team (18 first-half points).
“We’ve been saying to him all year that he is a dominant player in this league. He has to believe that,” Sutton said of Lash. “We all jumped on his back.”
The last time these two Elm City rivals squared off in state tournament play was in 2004. That, too was in the opening round in what was then called the Class I tournament.
The seedings were also the same: Cross at No. 15 was hosting No. 18 Hillhouse. Cross, coached by Jim Reynolds, won 73-63 over Hillhouse, coached by Kermit Carolina.
Think about what has happened since: Hillhouse has won five CIAC state championships and Cross none. Then the Governors won their first SCC championship since 2008.
But it’s Hillhouse which walks away with the city championship again.
“These kids have worked really, really hard this season. “I’m a little disappointed with the effort but the future is bright here at Wilbur Cross,” Walton said.