Visiting Canton took an early punch, got back up off the floor and took the lead for the first time in the third quarter.
It’s didn’t faze the Ellington High boys basketball team.
The Purple Knights gave up just three field goals in the fourth quarter and beat Canton, 44-43, to earn a spot in Friday’s NCCC Tournament championship game for the second time in three years.
Ellington (13-1) will host SMSA (13-1) on Friday night beginning at 6 p.m. as the Knights look for their first league tournament title since 1982.
With Brandon Zahner draining his first two shots from the floor and Braedan Shea sinking a pair of three-point shots, Ellington raced out to an early eight-point lead, 11-3. The Knights led by six after one quarter and maintained that six-point lead at halftime.
“We started out in a zone and quickly went back to man-to-man defense,” Canton coach Craig Archambault said. “That got us back in the game defensively. I was really proud of how we played on the defensive end. “
The Warriors started draining shots in the third quarter and used a 16-5 run to capture a 31-26 lead. Ryan McGoldrick scored 12 of his team-high 15 points in the third quarter including three 3-point shots. His drive to the basket with four seconds left in the third quarter gave the Warriors a six-point lead, 36-30.
Canton extended the lead to eight – their largest of the game – when Luke Maher stole the ball and drove in for a layup with 7:21 remaining in the game.
But Canton would score just two field goals in the contest’s final seven minutes thanks to some strong rebounding from the Knights on the defensive and offensive end of the floor. Several offensive rebounds extended possessions for Ellington and helped the Purple Knights take the lead with a 9-0 run capped off by a three-point shot from the corner from Zach Killoran with about four minutes remaining.
Canton grabbed the lead again when Nate Lincoln scored off a fast break with 3:48 remaining for a 40-39 advantage.
Ellington coughed up the ball on an inbounds play with 3:14 left and turned the ball over again with 2:19 remaining. The Warriors were position to extend their lead but couldn’t find an open man and after multiple passes turned the ball over with 1:22 remaining.
Ellington’s Thomas Garrows sank two foul shots with 1:04 remaining to give Ellington a 41-40 lead. Canton had a good opportunity for the lead a few seconds later when Josh Burke drove to the basket but his layup rolled off the rim and Ellington pulled down the rebound.
Ellington’s Michael Bontempo hit the first of two foul shots with 22.4 seconds left to extend the lead to two, 42-40. Colin Mackin pulled down the rebound and was fouled immediately. But Mackin missed the front end of a 1-and-1 opportunity and Ellington pulled down the rebound.
Bontempo missed the front end of his 1-and-1 opportunity and Canton got the ball downcourt only to see Garrows swat away Maher’s shot on the baseline with six seconds remaining. Garrow hit two free throws with 5.3 seconds to extend the lead to 44-40.
McGoldrick drained a three-point shot with one second left to cut the lead to one, 43-40.
The Warriors didn’t make it back to the NCCC finals but there was closure to the pandemic-shortened season – even in defeat.
A year ago, the season just ended days before the CIAC’s Division IV tournament was to begin thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic that was sweeping across the country.
“Even to have the finality of the season is something we are grateful for,” Archambault said. “I am grateful I got to coach these five terrific seniors for the last time. To get in 14 games and get to the semifinals, I feel gratitude.”
These players did something no other Canton basketball has done. “No one has played in masks before. No one has played during a pandemic,” Archambault said.
Shea led Ellington with 12 points while Bontempo added 11.
For Canton, Lincoln had nine points. It was the seventh straight year that Canton advanced to the semifinals of the NCCC Tournament.
Ellington 44, Canton 43
Canton (43) Brandon Powell 3-0-6, Kyle Maher 2-0-4, Colin Mackin 2-0-5, Ryan McGoldrick 5-1-15, Silas Sawtelle 0-2-2, Nate Lincoln 4-0-9, Josh Burke 0-2-2. Totals 16-5
Ellington (44) Mike Bontempo 4-3-11, Brandon Zahner2-0-6, Thomas Garrows 1-4-6, Zach Killoran 2-0-5, Brandon Shea 5-0-12, Mitchell Whealan 2-0-4. Totals 16-7
Canton (11-3) 7 8 21 7 — 43
Ellington (13-1) 13 8 9 14 – 44
Three-point goals: Mackin (Ca), McGoldrick (Ca) 4, Lincoln (Ca); Zahner (Ell) 2, Killoran (Ell), Shea (Ell) 2
2021 NCCC Boys Basketball Tournament
Monday, March 22
Game 1: Ellington 59, Windsor Locks 37
Game 2: Canton 66, Somers 60
Game 3: Rockville 53, Granby 45
Game 4: SMSA 74, Stafford 53
Wednesday, March 24
Game 7: Ellington 44, Canton 43
Game 8: SMSA 67, Rockville 36
Game 5: Granby at Somers
Game 6: Windsor Locks vs. Stafford
Friday, March 26
Game 9: Championship – SMSA at Ellington, 6 p.m.