MIDDLETOWN — Middletown was looking for a shot of confidence Monday night after losing four of its first five games of the season against some of the state’s top teams.
The Blue Dragons chipped away at Platt’s double-digit lead in the fourth quarter, getting within seven with 1:23 left, but they couldn’t come all the way back in a 79-67 CCC South-Colonial Division loss at LaBella-Sullivan Gymnasium.
Jamarius Russell led Middletown (1-5, 1-2 division) with 19 points. Jonathan Nkonoki added 15 and Tejan Lanser scored 12 points.
The guard-heavy lineups of Middletown and Platt made for an up-and-down game throughout the night. The Blue Dragons struggled from the perimeter and Platt’s transition game and second-chance baskets tipped the scales for the Panthers.
Guard Romello Leary scored 14 of his game-high 22 points in the second half for Platt. Tre Carter and Malcolm Andrews finished with 19 points each.
“They pushed the ball up the floor and they attacked the rim, and I thought we could have done a better job of stopping them from getting all the way to the hoop,” Middletown coach Rick Privott said.
Tied at 23 late in the second quarter, Platt hit Middletown with an 11-0 run to help take a 37-25 lead at the half.
At one point, Privott had three freshmen on the floor.
“With the youngsters that we have, falling behind at the half, our biggest job was to get them to understand that the game was not over,” the coach said. “It’s like they got deflated. Their body language, was, ‘we’ve lost.’
“And you have to coach through it and they have to learn that they need to play with that same intensity all the way to the end. Under control, of course.
“Again, it’s a learning process. I thought (the freshmen) played well enough to earn additional minutes.”
Platt (6-2 overall, 3-0 in the Colonial) came out firing in the second half, with Adriel Gill knocking down a 3-pointer in the opening seconds to push the lead to 15.
Middletown was able to cut the deficit to eight at 48-41 when Nkonoki scored on a drive to the basket and was fouled. He missed the free throw, but got his own rebound and put it back.
Platt’s transition game, as was the case throughout, never let up. The Panthers were able to steer their lead back to 10 as the third-quarter ended — although the Panthers were called for a foul on Nkonoki’s heave from just past half-court as the buzzer sounded.
The sophomore, however, missed all three free-throw attempts, another example of the Dragons’ inability to sustain a run.
Middletown trailed by as many as 13 points with about four minutes left before mounting its rally.
Russell hit a runner along the baseline, scored again in transition after a Platt turnover, and Nkonoki also scored in the paint to get Middletown within 69-62 with 2:46 to go.
But Carter finished a fierce drive with a layup, and after the Dragons missed two shots on their next possession, the Panthers got a second-chance bucket to bring their lead back to 11 inside of two minutes remaining.
“We played well in spurts,” Platt coach Shawon Moncrief said. “We match up well with Middletown. We don’t have a true big man and they don’t, either. We both play classic, similar styles and we both have a lot of young guys.
“Middletown plays hard and felt their record was not an indication of how hard they would be playing tonight.”
Middletown’s early-season struggles include road losses to East Catholic, ranked second in this week’s GameTimeCT Top 10 poll, No. 4 Bassick. The Blue Dragons visit Bridgeport Central on Wednesday before returning home for a Friday night game against No. 9 East Hartford.
“Platt is a very good, athletic team,” Privott said. “It’s tough to play from behind. Our foul shooting didn’t help us either. We’re just going to have to practice it and continue to get the guys to learn basketball instincts.”