WATERBURY — This was supposed to be the year that Sacred Heart came back to the pack in the Naugatuck Valley League.
This was supposed to be the year the long winning streak ended for the Hearts. But no one told the Hearts that. They just keep winning game after game after game.
Third-ranked Sacred Heart kept the streak intact with a 67-62 victory over ninth-ranked Naugatuck. It now stands at 123 straight games. Lorenzo Washington led the way with 32 points for the Hearts.
“We know how to play in big games. We came out and executed down the stretch,” Washington said.
Sacred Heart’s last NVL loss came in the 2014 league tournament final against Crosby.
The game was everything you hoped an undefeated matchup of top 10 teams would be. Back-and-forth action, great defensive possessions and a close game down the stretch.
“They have weathered the storm for a lot of years with people coming at their necks,” Naugatuck coach Mike Wilson said. “You kind of get that aura about you.”
In fact, the sellout of 840 at Alumni Hall – in advance on Thursday – was in favor of the road team. The Greyhound faithful were loud, especially in the third quarter
“They travel pretty well, huh?” Carroll said.
Said Wilson: “The place was rocking. They were smart to keep it here (at Alumni Hall), because if it had been somewhere else, we might had 5,000 (fans) the way my phone was ringing today.”
The difference was Sacred Heart (19-0) didn’t rattle down the stretch. The Hearts didn’t lose their composure when they trailed by nine in the third quarter or when their 7-footer, Connor Tierney, fouled out with 5:54 left.
Naugatuck (18-1) held a 49-40 lead with 2:55 left in the third after a 14-0 run. Sacred Heart was only down three by quarter’s end.
“It’s resilience. We practice fast, we practice chaotic,” Carroll said. “When we do get down nine know we can spurt too, we never feel out of it.”
Steven Alseph hit a 3-point shot to gave Sacred Heart (19-0) the lead for good at 58-57 with 4:38 left. All game long, Naugatuck was able to land a big blow or a counter-punch.
But the Greyhounds rattled. Coming out of a timeout 2:19 left, Naugatuck committed a turnover.
The Greyhounds committed another one 1 minute later. Caleb Sampson (13 points) hit four straight free throws and the lead was 5, 64-59, with 35.5 seconds left.
“We get done what we need to get done,” Sampson said. “When we are down, we come together even more.”
Sad Wilson: “There were a couple of moments where we didn’t execute, I felt like, it slowed us down a little bit.”
In between Sampson’s two trips to the line, the Hearts took more than 30 seconds off the clock before the Greyhounds were able to foul.
“We really slowed (the tempo) down and kept them out of the lane,” Washington said. “We started rebounding more, taking more charges and came out of here with the W.”
Ese Onakpoma went end to end for a thunderous dunk that sent the Naugatuck crowd into a tizzy. Then Sampson hit one free throw and Washington two more to seal the victory. Sacred Heart shot 9 of 10 from the stripe inside the final 2 minutes
“We were trying to keep him in front of us and shoot everything over the top,” Wilson explained the game plan to defend Washington. “And we did a terrible job as far as doubling him…. A good player like that, you can’t give him any room.”
Sacred Heart was able to withstand an incredible game from 6-6 sophomore Avery Hinnant (28 points, 17 rebounds) in the pivot.
“They competed, they fought, my young boys were ready to go.” Wilson said, “We couldn’t ask for a better opportunity to come into a wild gym on the road against the No. 3 team in the state which obviously has an incredible streak going on right now. This puts a chip on our shoulder, that’s all it should do.”
The NVL tournament will be held Feb. 29-March 4 at Wilby. Sacred Heart and Naugatuck will be the top two seeds. Naugatuck has not won the NVL title since 1969.
Player of the Game
Lorenzo Washington, Sacred Heart: Floor leader was dynamite from deep (six 3-pointers) en route to a game-high 32 points. He also played keepaway from the Naugatuck guards, taking time off the clock, and added three steals.
“Hopefully in a week and a half, we get to this again.”
Sacred Heart coach Jon Carroll