WEST HAVEN — The road to boys basketball success in the Southern Connecticut Conference normally goes through the city of New Haven. The 18 league championships between Wilbur Cross, Hillhouse and Career says so.
If a team can find a way to beat either Hillhouse or Cross in a season, it’s a feather in the cap at the very least and in most cases, the highlight of its regular season. But to beat both teams? That’s league contender status right there.
West Haven is a league contender for the SCC title to be decided later this month. That is the ultimate prize this year with no CIAC state tournaments being held.
The Westies defeated ninth-ranked Cross 62-49 at the Floyd Little Athletic Center Friday night. They have won four straight since returning from a two-week COVID quarantine.
“This game was major for the city of West Haven, for our following,” West Haven coach Ty Sullivan said.
West Haven (5-0) defeated Hillhouse in its season opener on Feb. 12 before going into the quarantine.
“That (the two weeks off) made us want to go get it even more, to play harder,” West Haven senior guard Maurice Williamson said.
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Sullivan, a former all-state player at Hillhouse before a lengthy run as an assistant coach under Renard Sutton that delivered three state championships, understands completely the magnitude for a program to beat both Hillhouse and Cross. He also realizes resting on your laurels isn’t an option.
“We have a program not used to having that kind of success,” Sullivan said. “I’m constantly reminding them we haven’t accomplished anything. Our goal is to get to the SCC tournament with a good seed and take it one game at a time when we get there.”
Malcolm Duncanson has been the workhorse for West Haven ever since Sullivan came to West Haven in 2018. He’s still the senior leader, but he has experienced help in a pair of transfers.
Eli Blackwell transferred in from Amistad and Kairon Hooks from Notre Dame-West Haven. Hooks came over after the preseason practice started and, according to Sullivan, won an appeal with the CIAC to become eligible and not have to sit out half the season due to the in-season transfer rule.
“There was an appeal hearing and he won the appeal. There wasn’t a change of address,” Sullivan said. “He gives us another weapon. He is a great talent.”
Said Duncanson: “He can attack off the dribble and also can spot up and shoot, so it makes it a lot easier on me and Eli Blackwell in terms of getting into the lane and having someone else to kick the ball out to and knock it down.”
Duncanson finished with 21 points and eight rebounds. Hooks and Blackwell added 17 and 14 points, respectively. Sullivan credited assistant coach Aaron Johnson with the game plan to help produce the win.
“He brought the scheme to me, we put it together and we executed it,” Sullivan said. “When you have two great leaders like Malcolm Duncanson and Eli Blackwell, it makes our job a lot easier.”
West Haven never trailed against Cross, the reigning two-time league champions. The Governors (6-2) were within two (41-39) midway through the third quarter until West Haven went on a 13-5 run to close out the period and take a 44-34 lead.
Cross never recovered. West Haven held as much as an 18-point lead in the final quarter.
“We just need a better effort. We need to start learning to trust each other and we as coaches have to do a better job of coaching them up,” Wilbur Cross coach Kevin Walton said. ‘It’s a new team and these guys have to learn how to win.”
The Governors figured things out after so-so regular seasons the last two years to turn it on when it mattered most. There is less preparation time with the league tournament scheduled to begin on March 18.
“Our experience from this game will prepare us for the tournament,” Walton said. “This is how you learn, nothing is given, everything is earned. Our kids will continue to work and we will be prepared for whoever we see in the tournament.”
Dereyk Grant was the only player from Cross in double figures with 14 points.