NEW BRITAIN — Aside from seeing Donte Pope score his 1,000th high school point, Middletown might not feel good about anything else from Monday night’s game.
New Britain, however, left the gym with a hop in its step after holding the Blue Dragons to 14 second-half points and a season-low total in a 59-41 CCC interdivision victory, ending the visitors’ win streak at six.
Benio Ayika led New Britain (9-4) with 17 points. Three more Hurricanes finished in double figures: Justice Carter and Tahmeen Dupree with 12 each and Nyzaiah Diaz with 10.
The Golden Hurricanes employed extended zone defenses with their long guards to take away the Blue Dragons’ mobility near the basket. Forced to rely on its outside game more than usual, Middletown’s shots did not fall with any consistency.
“We didn’t shoot the ball well at all against the zone. That was the biggest difference in this game,” Middletown coach Rick Privott said. “The shots we usually make were not dropping tonight. We just couldn’t put the ball in the hole. Just one of those nights.”
— BlueDragons_MHS_Bball (@middletownbball) February 4, 2020
Pope finished with 19 points, the only Blue Dragon in double figures. Guards Kenny Fountain, Mekhi Toler and Jonathan Nkonoki, who feed off each other, struggled to find space and open looks. The three were held to a combined 10 points, with point guard Fountain held scoreless.
“Our defense was great tonight. It’s the only word I can use to describe it, just great,” New Britain coach Kurt Reis said. “I’ve seen (Middletown) play just once. I knew No. 5 (Fountain) was key for them penetrating and making everybody better, so our game plan was to limit his penetration getting to the basket and finding guys.”
Sophomore center Elijah Wilborn finished with five points and 11 rebounds for Middletown.
Middletown, which fell to 11-3, held the lead for the final time at 17-16. Tahmeen Dupree hit both ends of a one-and-one with 4:48 remaining in the first half to put the Hurricanes ahead for good.
A putback underneath by Ayika and a basket in transition by Carter gave the Hurricanes a 29-22 advantage inside of a minute left in the half. Roy McKeithan’s 3-pointer from the corner and Pope’s lay-in from a Matt Steuerwald pass cut the deficit to two, but Vainniko Schand scored from the lane with 1.4 seconds to go, giving New Britain a 31-27 lead at the break.
Middletown felt good about its situation, being in a one-possession game, heading into the second half, but its shots continued to hit iron. The Blue Dragons had only two field goals in the third quarter.
“We tried to attack the zone a little bit more with the dribble,” Privott said, “but then we’re kicking it out and still not hitting the shots. Just a tough shooting night.”
Reis preached more of the same to the Hurricanes at halftime. Within their zone, they had the wide body of freshman Dontay Bishop occupying space.
“I told the kids, ‘stay in the passing lanes,’” Reis said. “We did a great job rebounding tonight and contesting shots. That was the language at halftime. Bishop is a big body in there and I thought he was most effective clogging the middle.”
A Pope lay-in kept it a four-point game with 4:27 left in the third quarter, but New Britain answered with two baskets from close range. Nkonoki’s 3-pointer brought Middletown back to within five, 37-32, but the Hurricanes scored six more points around a Middletown free throw to carry a 43-33 lead into the fourth.
When Pope scored on the break from a feed by Nkonoki just 64 seconds into the fourth, it was the last time the Blue Dragons had their deficit under 10 points. They scored just eight points in the quarter.
At that point, Reis called for a stall offense, forcing Middletown to foul to get the ball back. The Hurricanes scored 10 of their 16 points in the quarter from the free-throw line.
“Give credit to New Britain and their defense,” Privott said. “Their zone was wide, they were very active and they got back, so we weren’t able to get out and run. And they didn’t rush their offense either. It wasn’t the running game I thought it would be.”
Pope scored 538 points in two seasons at Hartford’s University High before transferring to Middletown as a junior. He scored 206 points in 10 games last season and now has 1,005 in his high school career.
“He’s a kid that deserves it,” Privott said. “He worked hard for it.”