For No. 7 Cromwell, this time of year on the basketball calendar brings a sense of familiarity.
The Panthers won the CIAC Division V championship last March, the ninth overall title for the program and second in John Pinone’s 18 seasons as coach. For that, they were promoted a notch to the D-IV tournament and will host a second-round game Wednesday against either No. 16 St. Joseph of Trumbull or No. 17 Ansonia (7 p.m.).
Pinone’s team has won 27 consecutive games, the longest current streak in the state. Cromwell rallied from an eight-point, second-half deficit in its last game, the Shoreline Conference tournament final, and beat Old Lyme in overtime by six to keep its unbeaten season intact.
The state tournament is a totally different beast, though — unfamiliar opponents from big conferences who sometimes are better than their records indicate.
Even so, the Panthers — most of this year’s players and from a historical sense — know the terrain and the challenges that await.
“What you can’t teach is the experience of going through a state tournament,” Pinone said Monday, an off-day for the team. “We have been through it. They saw last year that it’s a tough journey. We played Innovation (in last year’s quarterfinal round) and were down eight with six minutes to go. It was not a great game for us, but we found a way to win.”
Cromwell prevailed by two, then won by wide margins in the semifinal round and championship game.
“The experience is a great thing to have in your back pocket going into tournament time,” he said.
Senior forward Nick Wright and junior big man Gabe Charleston started in last year’s state final, and senior guard JJ Tracy-Gavin played significant minutes. This season, all three average in double figures in scoring, while Charleston leads the team in rebounding, Wright in assists, and Tracy-Gavin in steals.
They have been the core throughout a 23-0 run in 2018-19. With complementing senior guards Nai Heyliger and Jack Dooley, plus role players Justin Valentin and Caleb Cain, Cromwell has been resilient and opportunistic enough to win a handful of close games, both on the road and at home, in the last month.
“It’s been valuable that these guys (Wright, Tracy-Gavin and Charleston) have had league and state tournament experience,” Pinone said. “It’s hopefully something they know, and let the other guys know, that this is how the state tournament is going to play out.”
Tracy-Gavin suffered a left leg injury in the regular season-ending finale against Old Lyme, a win that gave Pinone his first 20-0 regular season. The coach feared the worst — an ACL injury — but the team’s top defender is just about at full strength. Tracy-Gavin missed only one game, a Shoreline quarterfinal win over Westbrook.
“He’s a little sore, but overall he’s played well (since),” Pinone said. “I’m very surprised that he came back from that injury. We are real fortunate. He played half a game last Tuesday in the semifinals and sat out only two or three minutes in the final. He’s never been (seriously) hurt in his career, not even a twisted ankle.”
If there’s one thing the Panthers have to guard against, it is Charleston’s penchant for getting into foul trouble early. Against Valley Regional in early February and in both Old Lyme games, Cromwell was without all he offers — scoring, shot-blocking and rebounding — for at least two quarters’ worth of time and sometimes more.
“If he sits half the game on the bench now, it’s going to make our job and life a lot more difficult,” Pinone said. “We are a different team when he is not out there, defensively and offensively. It changes the dynamic of who we are.
“That said, our bench has done a great job. Jack Dooley hit three threes against Old Lyme, and Justin Valentin and Caleb Cain played a lot of minutes and held the place down until Gabe started second half.”
With the St. Joseph-Ansonia game moved to Tuesday because of Sunday’s overnight snowstorm, the winner will be playing on back-to-back nights.
“It’s going to be a hell of a challenge for us,” Pinone said. “Ansonia might win that game. They are big, strong, athletic, and can shoot it pretty good. It would not shock me. They are not going to be intimidated.
“And playing New Canaan, Ridgefield and Trumbull (in the FCIAC), I don’t think of St. Joe’s as being a Division IV team with an 11-9 record. That’s not the history of St. Joe’s.”
Looming later in Cromwell’s side of the bracket could be No. 4 New Canaan, No. 5 St. Bernard or No. 8 Stonington.
At the very least, last week’s Shoreline final provided a state tournament-like atmosphere ahead of schedule, Pinone said.
“We were down in that game and we did not panic,” he said, adding, “there are no easy games in the state tournament. You might win some by a lot, but they’re not easy and you have to always be prepared. One mistake, one missed assignment, could be the difference between winning or losing.”