— CHS Sports (@_CHS_Sports_) February 6, 2019
DEEP RIVER – Cromwell coach John Pinone finally got his wish. After 16 lopsided wins, the Panthers had to fight their way out of Valley Regional’s gym to remain unbeaten.
Nothing came easy for either team Tuesday night. The Warriors were missing their leading scorer, junior forward Gavin Grabowski, and Cromwell’s big man, 6-foot-4 Gabe Charleston, sat out large chunks of time due to foul trouble.
In the end, the defenses took center stage and Cromwell’s proved to be just a little bit better. The Panthers held Valley scoreless for the final 1 minute, 31 seconds and went 4-for-4 from the free-throw line in that stretch to pull out a 42-36 Shoreline Conference victory.
“We needed it. I’m glad we were in a game like this, and obviously glad we were on the winning side,” Pinone said after the Panthers, ranked 10th in the GameTimeCT poll, improved to 17-0 overall and 14-0 in the Shoreline. They last lost in the 2018 Shoreline tournament final, a streak of 21 straight wins.
“These are the types of games we are going to get in February (later, in the Shoreline tournament) and March – a tournament-type atmosphere and both teams playing great defense most of the game.”
Grabowski, who averages 17.2 points per game and scored 38 in a Friday win over Haddam-Killingworth, was too sick to play. Even without his presence, Valley (11-4, 10-4) was down only two after Kevin Fasulo made two free throws with 1:41 remaining.
But the Warriors couldn’t get another bucket. Down 38-36, they had the ball and were setting up in the half court when Cromwell’s Nick Wright intercepted Cade Ensinger’s pass. Wright got the ball to Nai Heyliger, who was fouled in the open court and made both free throws with 33.5 seconds left.
Ensinger missed an off-balance 3-point attempt with 16 seconds to go. Valley had to foul and Tyler Baldwin wound up at the line for Cromwell, and the junior guard made both free throws to seal the win. The Warriors called a timeout, but Ensinger couldn’t get a good look and missed another 3-point heave with four seconds left.
Cromwell rode the play of senior guard JJ Tracy-Gavin at both ends of the floor. He shadowed Ensinger, Valley’s point guard, throughout the game, making it difficult for him both in the open court and on the perimeter. Tracy-Gavin also led his team with 13 points, his last bucket coming on a layup off his own steal when Valley had a chance to tie the score midway through the fourth.
“To the kid’s credit, when he’d make a bad play he’d fight through it and make a good play,” Pinone said. “That steal he made was huge. He stayed with it mentally. We harp on that. Getting into February and March, we tell the kids, ‘This is how it’s going to be.’
“Valley played hard and they always play hard. They did some really good things. this game was good for us.”
Without Grabowski, Valley coach Kevin Woods went with a bigger lineup, adding 6-foot-2 junior Jake Grow and packing a zone against Cromwell’s speed. The Panthers struggled in their half-court offense, and they lost Charleston as well as Heyliger for the majority of the second and third quarters because of foul trouble. Charleston finished with two points, 11 below his season average.
“With a big lineup, it gave us a chance to stay in it because we were not clicking on offense,” Valley coach Kevin Woods said.
Valley held Cromwell to 11 points in the first quarter. The problem was the Warriors scored only two.
“Holding them to 11 in the first quarter was big. Despite being down nine, we felt good how the game was being played,” Woods said.
Valley began to chip away in the second quarter, especially with Charleston missing the last 5:47 with his second foul. After Cromwell scored seven straight points to build a 20-6 cushion, the Warriors responded with a 10-0 run – five points coming from Ensinger – to take them into halftime down only four.
Valley held Cromwell scoreless for the last four minutes of the quarter.
“We were kind of motivated by everyone saying Cromwell is the best team defensively in the league,” Woods said. “We have a solid ego and we pride ourselves on our defense. It gave us a chance tonight, we just didn’t capitalize on our opportunities.
“But they are No. 10 in the state for a good reason. We wish we came out with the W, but I can’t blame the effort.”
Valley had a two-point lead twice in the third, but Cromwell responded each time and took the lead for good at 27-26 just before the end of the quarter.
“If we can play like that on a more consistent basis, the offense will come. No doubts about it,” Woods said. “The effort we put forward defensively, that’s a championship effort. That is very capable of winning the Shoreline or at least competing for the Shoreline and Division V (championships).”
Fasulo scored a game-high 14 points for Valley and Ensinger had 13.
Cromwell 42, Valley Regional 36
Nai Heyliger 3 2 8; Nick Wright 3 2 8; JJ Tracy-Gavin 5 2 13; Gabe Charleston 0 2 2; Tyler Baldwin 1 3 6; Justin Valentin 1 0 3; Nick Polizonis 0 2 2. Totals: 13 13 42.
Ryan Shasha 0 0 0; Chris Sparaco 1 0 2; Cade Ensinger 6 0 13; Kevin Fasulo 5 3 14; John Tibbets 1 0 2; Dylan Sparaco 1 0 3; Jake Grow 1 0 2, Drew Kelly 1 0 2. Totals: 15 3 36.
3-pointers: C—Tracy-Gavin, Baldwin, Valentin. V—Ensinger, Fasulo, D. Sparaco