MERIDEN, March 14 – There have been games this year when Cromwell High boys basketball coach John Pinone has pleaded with his team to play with passion and effort. Wednesday night was not one of those nights.
No. 3 Cromwell forced numerous turnovers and held No. 2 Canton to just 44 points as the Panthers advanced to the Division V championship game with a 65-44 semifinal victory at Maloney High.
The Panthers (21-4) never trailed and led by as many as 26 points in the second half. Cromwell will face No. 4 Wamogo-Litchfield in the championship game on Saturday morning at the Mohegan Sun Arena.
“I’ve been really tough on this team,” said Pinone, who played collegiate basketball at Villanova, one year in the NBA with the Atlanta Hawks and nine years of professional basketball in Europe. “I’ve been riding them hard. But tonight, I didn’t have to say a thing. They were really ready to play.”
Canton beat the Panthers by 14 points in late December. At one point of the season, Cromwell was 6-3. But the Panthers won 13 in a row before losing to East Hampton in the Shoreline Conference title game. Now, they’ve won three in a row to earn a spot in the state championship game for the first time since 2009.
“We weren’t ready for Canton (in December). They physically beat us up,” Pinone said. “Tonight, we played one of our, if not the best, game of the season. We were really good at not turning over the ball. I can’t say enough about our effort defensively. We were locked in. They played their (tails) off.”
Canton (20-5) trailed by 11 points at halftime but entered the court in the third quarter confident. They have shown the ability to cut deficits this season.
But they turned the ball over three times on their first four possessions of the second half as the Panthers scored seven unanswered points capped off by Noah Buzik draining a three-point shot with 5:51 left in the third quarter to help Cromwell push the lead to 18 points, 38-20.
“Cromwell played very well,” Canton coach Craig Archambault said. “They defended well. They executed phenomenally. They were a tough, tough Shoreline (Conference) team. It just wasn’t our night and that’s due to Cromwell.”
Buzik led Cromwell with 19 points including some big shots in the first quarter. Each time Canton came close, he hit a painful jumper to extend the lead. Buzik hit a jumper from the top of the key to extend the lead to four, 8-4. After Canton’s Luke Brown cut the lead to one with a three-point shot, Buzik drained another three-point shot to push the lead back to four, 11-8.
Buzik’s baseline jumper with 28 seconds left in the quarter gave the Panthers a 15-9 lead after one quarter.
Canton’s Ryan Enns scored in the lane with 2:46 left in the second quarter to trim the lead to four, 24-20. But Buzik drained a three-point shot 19 seconds later to extend the lead to seven, 27-20. Canton never got any closer.
Enns tried to carry the Warriors with a team-high 19 points. Brown had 10 points while Tim Keating added eight points.
“We got them out of their rhythm,” Pinone said. “When they get the lead, they are a much tougher team to defend.” Six-foot-four sophomore Gabe Charleston pulled down some key rebounds and scored 14 points for the Panthers while teammate Reese Reyes added 10 points.
It was an emotional locker room afterwards for the Warriors and their five starting seniors – Brown, Enns, Keating, Jack Mansur and Mitchell Cormier.
“We talked about how proud we were of their season,” Archambault said. “These five seniors changed this program. Since they started playing varsity, they are 57-18. In the last two years, they were 40-10, back-to-back conference champions and playing in their first semifinal in sometime. They’ve been a pleasure to coach. I’m going to miss them. I will miss them a lot.”
Cromwell 65, Canton 44
Cromwell (65) Noah Budzik 7 2-2 19, Nick Wright 2 1-2 5, Brendan Stafstrom 0-0-0, David Dewey 0 1-2 1, Tracy Gavin, Jr. 2 6-9 11, Roy Austin 2 0-0 5, Gabe Charleston 7-0-14, Reese Reyes 4 2-2 10. Totals 24 12-17 65
Canton (44) Chris Tenzar 1-0-3, Luke Brown 3 3-3 10, Jack Mansur 0-0-0, Ryan Enns 8 3-8 19, Grant Lange 0-0-0, Tim Keating 3 2-4 8, Matt Rose 0-0-0, Mitchell Cormier 2-0-4, Jack Rose 0-0-0. Totals 17 8-15 44
Cromwell (21-4) 15 16 15 19 – 65
Canton (20-5) 9 11 8 16 — 44
Three-point goals: Buzik (Crom) 3, Gavin (Crom), Austin (Crom), Brown (Can), Tenczar (Can)