WEST HAVEN — It had all the looks of a typical early-season boys basketball game: struggles on offense, unforced turnovers and very few fast-break points.
Add in adjusting to wearing masks under game conditions and Friday’s game between between West Haven and Hillhouse was anything but pretty. But style points don’t count in the Southern Connecticut Conference — wins do.
And for the Westies, they will take the Ws however they come. With Malcolm Duncanson and Eli Blackwell leading the way, West Haven held off Hillhouse 52-46 to open the brand-new Neil Cavallaro Court with a positive result.
“We knew it was going to be ugly. For them to be in this game, it had to be an ugly game we expected that and we were prepared for that,” West Haven coach Ty Sullivan said. “I will take a game like this any day over a 20-point win. It prepares you for championship basketball. You don’t get that experience in practice. There is nothing better than being battle-tested early in the season.”
Said senior guard Duncanson: “We knew Hillhouse was going to play hard. They weren’t going to back down. It wasn’t pretty, but it’s the first game of the season and we figured it out as a team.”
Duncanson has carried the load for West Haven under Sullivan. Sometimes, the load proved too much as he would wear down at the end of games.
Duncanson now has someone who can help shoulder that scoring load on a consistent basis. Blackwell, who transferred in from Amistad, scored a game-high 19 points.
“Eli makes it so much easier to handle a game and takes a lot of pressure off Malcolm,” Sullivan said. “Two guards with experience pretty much did what they wanted to do tonight.”
Duncanson had 17 points and eight rebounds for the Westies.
West Haven has another weapon coming: Kairon Hooks, who transferred over from Notre Dame-West Haven after preseason practice had begun, isn’t eligible to play yet. The 6-foot-4 senior guard can bring some experience and another scoring option.
“He can give us another dimension as a spot-up shooter and slasher,” Sullivan said.
And if others step up like Kyle Kearson did tonight — nine fourth-quarter points — West Haven will be tough to beat.
The Westies scored the game’s first eight points and never trailed. West Haven played stellar defense in the first half (forcing eight turnovers) while committing just one. Blackwell made three 3-pointers in the opening quarter
But West Haven also couldn’t provide the knockout blow.
Hillhouse turned its own half-court defensive pressure up in the third, forcing the Westies into a 1-for-11 shooting period. The Academics trimmed a 12-point halftime deficit (31-19) down to seven (35-28).
But the Academics got no closer than six. Matt Gibbs led the way with 14 points.
“Defensively, we are holding teams to 50 points but it is hard for us to score. We just have to get better,” Hillhouse coach Renard Sutton said.
Yes Hillhouse is young — by Hillhouse’s standards. And it will take time. But after losing the season opener to Amity, the Academics are 0-2 for the first time in decades — and all indications are West Haven beat Hillhouse for the first time since Sullivan played there in the late 1990s.
“We have time to grow up. It’s the pandemic season,” Sutton said. “I’m not trying to sugarcoat anything or try to downplay anything. It’s still Hillhouse, we have to figure out ways to compete. … Right now, we are learning on the job.”