CROMWELL — It’s no secret to anyone in the Shoreline Conference — coach, player or fan — that Morgan, top to bottom, returned the most experienced roster for the 2021 season.
Cromwell’s John Pinone, who knows a thing or two about winning Shoreline Conference titles and state championships, called the Huskies the Shoreline’s “standard bearer” this year. There was more proof of that Friday night after Morgan took apart the Panthers 48-24 at Jake Salafia Gymnasium.
Cromwell made a game of it in the third quarter when it sliced its deficit to six points at the halfway point, but Morgan dropped a 23-0 run on the Panthers to win going away.
Huskies senior forward Alex Fratamico was more pointed with how he feels about his team after it improved to 2-0 in the 12-game season.
“We have a bunch of athletes out there and I think our defense is pretty unstoppable this year,” said Fratamico. “It’s going to be tough for teams to put up points against us. If they’re going to put up points, then they’re going to have to shoot the ball phenomenally well.
“Our defense was outstanding and it gives us a lot of momentum going into the rest of the year. This gives a heads-up to the rest of the Shoreline Conference that we’re the best team here.”
Cromwell struggled mightily from the perimeter all night, a combination of its own shooting woes with open looks and Morgan’s size taking away much of anything from 15 feet in. The Panthers fell behind 9-3 after one quarter and 20-8 at halftime, totaling just three field goals in the first 16 minutes.
“I wanted my guys to understand that we were playing the standard bearer of the league,” Pinone said after his team fell to 1-1 following a season-opening win over Haddam-Killingworth. “This was a game that we would find out how good we are and where we stack up in the league. We’re not even close to being there yet.
“Their physicality, we were no match for, and we did not match their enthusiasm. They took it to us. We didn’t have it tonight, and you have to give credit to Morgan for that.”
If there was a silver lining for Cromwell in any of this, it’s that its defense allowed 20 points (in the first half) to a Morgan team that has a raft of scoring options in guards Drew Nye, Zach Johnson and Jason Cohen, the 6-foot-4 Fratamico at forward, 6-6 Rob Zirlis and 6-8 reserve center Connor Duffy.
“Defensively, I thought we were pretty good in the first half,” Pinone said, “but when you miss put-backs and airball layups … you can’t score eight in a half. We couldn’t throw it in the ocean.”
Cromwell showed a glimpse of a rally at the start of the second half. Senior guard Justin Valentin hit a 3-pointer from the wing, and after Zirlis scored underneath to make it a 22-14 game, Valentin drained a 3-pointer from the corner.
A minute later, Malcolm Mention swished a 3-pointer from the corner to pull the Panthers to within six at 23-17 with 4:29 left in the third quarter. But then the wheels came off.
When Zirlis put back a third Morgan chance underneath the basket and was fouled, his three-point play sparked a quarter-ending 11-0 run. Johnson scored four points in the run and Nye and Gavin Krott had a bucket each as Morgan took a 34-17 advantage into the fourth quarter.
“When we cut it to six we had a little momentum, but after that it was a 20-something run, just awful,” Pinone said.
The Huskies’ offensive balance was on display when stringing the first 12 points of the final quarter, with Nye and Zirlis scoring four each and Fratamico and Johnson also contributing buckets.
“We have a lot of people that can do everything, shoot, drive, play inside,” said Johnson, who led all scorers with 11 points.
Nye added 10 points for the Huskies and Zirlis scored nine. Justin Valentin led Cromwell with nine points.
“We’re never satisfied, but we’re all very pleased with the outcome,” Fratamico said. “We know these guys (Cromwell). They give us a hard time every year. We lost to them last year and the year before. They have a phenomenal coach and a phenomenal defense, but we have to be very pleased with a 24-point win.”
The Shoreline intends to have a conference tournament in March. The Huskies intend to be there and contend for the title, with coach Frank Rossi saying the team’s defense will provide the map.
“Our goal coming into this season was to try to raise the level of our defense,” he said. “The last few years, Cromwell, Old Lyme, Valley Regional (all Shoreline champions in recent years), those teams defend. If we want to be where we want to be at the end of the season, we have to be able to defend. This was a step in the right direction tonight. This is how we’ve been coaching the kids to play — high energy and more aggressive than we’ve ever been in the past.”