— BlueDragons_MHS_Bball (@middletownbball) January 22, 2020
MIDDLETOWN – The sentiment was clear just from the players’ body language. Wednesday night’s game against Bassick came with some extra juice for the Middletown boys basketball team.
“Not to disrespect any of the other teams we’ve played, but we were going up against a quality opponent that has been winning,” coach Rick Privott said after his Blue Dragons dismantled the Lions 86-69. “This was a big game for us.”
The game was halted with 2:20 remaining in the fourth quarter because of an incident near the Bassick bench, which involved Bassick’s team manager, a source told GameTimeCT.
Once order was restored by security and Middletown Police, Lofton opted not to put his team back on the floor and the game was called.
“It was feisty around our area,” Bassick coach Bernie Lofton said. “Things were getting out of hand and it didn’t look like it was going to get any better. I took the loss and decided it was not our night.”
Middletown improved to 7-2 as senior guard Jonathan Nkonoki put forth a career night with 31 points. Donte Pope, who scored 32 earlier this week, chipped in with 20 and Kenny Fountain added 12 in the Blue Dragons’ second straight win following a loss to Glastonbury.
“We’re not looking for any individual to take over a game,” Nkonoki said. “Sometimes it’s Donte (scoring), sometimes it’s me, sometimes it’s Kenny, sometimes it’s Mekhi (Toler). It’s not really about who does it. It’s just if you’re having a good game, keep doing what you’re doing.”
Bassick (6-4) opened the season with a top five ranking in the GameTimeCT poll and was riding a four-game winning streak entering LaBella-Sullivan Gymnasium. There was some history in play, too — the Lions beat Middletown by 41 points at this time last season.
“I felt good about this game coming in, but we knew that they would be tough because of the way they shoot the ball,” Lofton said. “They have four or five guys that can shoot it well and make threes and they did exactly that.”
Matt Steuerwald added nine points off the bench for Middletown, with Toler and Fountain slicing through Bassick’s defense to set up their teammates from the outside and on the fast break.
Rasheed Payne led Bassick with 21 points and Tyrese Hammond chipped in 13. Khy’shawn Banks, another scoring threat for the Lions, committed three personal fouls in the first half and spent most of his night on the bench. He scored only three points.
Middletown set the tone for the night with a 16-3 run to end the first quarter, turning what had been a 10-10 game into a 26-13 advantage.
“We were all looking for each other, sharing the ball, taking shots, making shots,” Nkonoki said. “The way we played during that run is how we won this game.”
The Blue Dragons scored 13 straight points in that surge, starting with a drive to the rim by Pope and a 3-pointer by Fountain. Nkonoki drove the lane and scored, was fouled and finished the three-point play.
Steuerwald, who came in to spell Toler, swished a 3-pointer and Fountain scored easily on the fast break. After Bassick snapped its drought with a 3-pointer by Joshua Santiago, Steuerwald buried another three in the final seconds of the quarter.
“I liked what we were doing,” Privott said. “We were sharing the ball well and we knew there would be openings in their defense and we were attacking. I was very pleased with what we were doing out there.”
Privott said the 11-point lead did little to make him comfortable, but the Blue Dragons rewarded with steady scoring and succeeding in not giving up a big enough run that would give Bassick hope. They maintained the lead for the next 21 minutes and change.
Bassick came out of halftime facing a 40-31 deficit and could not shrink it to less than eight the rest of the way. When Jermaine Grant drove the lane for a bucket with two minutes remaining in the third quarter, it would be the last time the Lions, at 58-49, were within single digits.
A runner by Payne with 7.8 seconds left in the third made it a 64-51 game. What followed showed how well the night went for Middletown. With 1.8 seconds left on the clock, Toler inbounded from just inside half-court to Nkonoki, who took the lofted pass, spun and banked in a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
“We were looking to get the ball in quick,” Nkonoki said. “We didn’t really have communication there, but he knew I was open. I caught it in the air, came back down, turned and shot it. It was a good pass. We work on that all the time.”
The bucket all but doused Bassick, which fell behind by 21 early in the fourth quarter.
“What do you say to that?” Lofton said. “You just have to keep trying. Our defense for the most part the last four or five games played pretty well, but we fouled too much tonight and put ourselves in bad positions.”