NEW HAVEN — Defense has been the calling card for Hillhouse throughout its run of state championships over the past decade.
So it probably was like looking in the mirror Monday night, watching its Elm City rival put on a solid, collective defensive effort of its own. Wilbur Cross was able to force plenty of poor shots from deep by the Academics.
Defending champion and No. 6 seed Wilbur Cross led from start to finish, defeating No. 2 Hillhouse 63-53 in the SCC tournament semifinals at the Floyd Little Athletic Center.
“The kids executed the game plan to perfection,” Wilbur Cross coach Kevin Walton said. “We knew it would come down to a defensive struggle. … We are super-proud of their effort. They were locked in in practice, focused.”
That sets up a rematch on Wednesday night. Wilbur Cross (16-7) will face top seed Notre Dame-West Haven, which defeated No. 5 Hamden 72-54 in the opening semifinal. Game time is 7 p.m. at the athletic center.
“Notre Dame is clearly the favorite. They have been the best team in the conference all year,” Walton said. “We are the defending champions, the kids are playing with a lot of pride, and we will come out here and let it all hang out on Wednesday.”
Hillhouse (19-3) won both regular-season meetings. But the Governors came up with the goods when it mattered the most, as they did a year ago making the run to the league title.
“We felt like the two times (Hillhouse) beat us, we knew the mistakes we made, so we had to make the adjustments,” said senior Jayleem Sayles, who finished with a game-high 20 points. “We had to play defense for a full 32 minutes. It was a team effort.”
Dereyk Grant (17 points) scored eight straight points early for Cross, giving the Governors a 10-1 lead. Hillhouse shot 2 of 14 from the floor in the opening quarter.
It never got much better for the Academics.
“They outplayed us across the board, defensively, rebounds, free throws, executing their offense, across the board they put played us,” Hillhouse coach Renard Sutton said. “It kind of felt like we were playing like we wanted the season to be over, but you don’t want to take anything away from Wilbur Cross. They played hard, left their hearts out on the floor, good for them. You have to respect the defending champions and just because the jersey says Hillhouse, you still have to play and represent the jersey.”
Notre Dame defeated Hamden for the second straight season in the semifinals. It’s the Green Knights’ third appearance in the final in four seasons. They are still looking for their first SCC championship.
Notre Dame started to take control late in the first half, then continued its offensive onslaught in the third.
The Green Knights made four threes en route to a 24-point quarter. Hamden had no answers for it. Kairon Hooks led the Green Knights (21-1) with three 3-pointers.
Notre Dame finished with 10 threes, all in the first three quarters.
“We are really good shooters. It’s like when we get hot, we are going to get hot,” said senior guard Amadou Kamara, who finished with 15 points. “We have a lot of guys who can make shots, that’s what it came down to.”
Said Notre Dame coach Jason Shea: “We play 10 players. All 10 can knock down the three, all 10 have the green light. I think they are all high percentage shooters and that makes us hard to guard.”
The Green Knights closed out the half on a 9-1 run to lead 38-30.
“They got hot shooting the ball and we got behind and we had to force the tempo at that point, which made it very difficult,” Hamden coach Jarrad Beck said.
Notre Dame is primarily a man-to-man team on defense. But the Green Knights went to the zone in the second quarter and stayed in it in the second half.
“I think it’s harder for a zone team to go to man. Zone is an easier transition. It’s the same principles except you don’t have to worry much about the screens,” Shea said. “We don’t spend a lot of time on it in practice. I think that if a man team knows how to play it, the zone is an easy transition, even in a game.”
The two teams combined for nine three-pointers in the first half, an uptempo first half. Hamden (16-7) trailed virtually the entire half.
Heston Tucker had nine points in the first half to lead Hamden. He finished with 12. Jayvon Chapman paced the Green Dragons with 17 points.
Cross will be attempting to win its eighth league title, Notre Dame its first.
“I’ve been here (to the final) three out of four years, but this team hasn’t. It’s important they understand that,” Shea said. “This is not retribution, this is not anything more than this season’s team. This is their own group. They have an opportunity to win the championship and our past doesn’t have any bearing on that.”