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Down the stretch, Bunnell quiets Lewis Mills to win Div. III title

Lewis Mills’ Eli Pelletier finds the path to the basket a tough one in Saturday’s CIAC Division III championship game. Jordan Pierce (24) and Matthew Duarte (5) of Bunnell try to slow him down,

UNCASVILLE, Conn., March 16, 2024 – Early in the third quarter, it didn’t look too promising for the Lewis Mills boys basketball team in Saturday’s CIAC Division III championship game at the Mohegan Sun Arena.

No. 5 Bunnell-Stratford extended their lead to 11 points by sinking their first shot of the third quarter.

But Lewis Mills isn’t fazed by a challenge. They have the “next point wins” mentality.  The Spartans adjusted their defense and started pulling down defensive rebounds that had eluded them in the first half.

Mills gave up just six points in the third quarter and scored 17 of the first 23 points of the second half to take their first lead of the game. But Bunnell kept playing defense, too, and shutout Mills in the final 3:47 of the game to win their second state championship in program history with a 45-40 victory.

No. 2 Lewis Mills (19-6) took a 40-39 lead when Eli Pelletier sank a three-point shot with 3:47 left in the game. Mills had two offensive rebounds in the sequence before Pelletier sank his first three-point shot of the game.

But Bunnell regained the lead when Nathaniel Banton pulled down the offensive rebound and scored with 3:20 remaining. Mills missed a driving layup with 2:38 left and the Bulldogs secured the rebound and game MVP Jordan Ricketts drove through the defense to the basket for a 43-40 lead with 2:34 remaining.

Ricketts was outstanding in the first half with 13 of his game-high 15 points, many on quick drives to the basket.

Pelletier missed from three-point range and teammate Connor Evans was able to secure the rebound but had it stolen away by J.T. Turnage with 1:45 remaining.

Bunnell added another two points on foul shots from Jordan Pierce with 1:17 remaining to extend the lead to 45-40.

Mills missed their final six shots of the game. They were 2-of-18 from three-point range.

“That was not our best shooting night of the year,” Mills coach Ryan Raponey said. “I have to credit Bunnell. They absolutely pressured the ball the entire game. They do not relent even when you get a missed shot or a rebound. They’re still coming at you. They don’t just get back (on defense) as lot of opponents do.

“They forced us into a few shots we didn’t want to take it,” he said.

Freshman Thomas Dinunzio led the Spartans with 11 points off the bench, going 4-for-4 from the floor. Evans had 10 points and pulled down a game-high 13 rebounds. Pelletier had eight points with Tristan Mooney sinking seven.

“Defense has been a staple for us all season,” Bunnell coach Dannie Powell said.

Mills had a 12-10 lead with 1:10 remaining on a basket from Dinunzio. Evans had two blocks in the first quarter. But Bunnell’s Karrell Brown scored in the lane, was fouled and sank a foul shot with 37.9 seconds left to take a 13-12 lead.

Ricketts closed out the quarter with a basket in the lane to give the Bulldogs a 15-12 lead after one quarter. Bunnell scored the next five points of the game with four points from Munoz to complete a 10-0 run and take a 20-12 lead with 5:55 left in the first half.

Mills had just two offensive rebounds in the first half.

Bunnell led 29-20 at the break and extended it to 31-20 early in the third quarter.

Lewis Mills’ Tommy Dinunzio drives to the basket in Saturday’s CIAC Division III championship game.

But Mills kept working. Jack Nestor scored in the lane and Mooney drained a three-pointer. Evans scored in the lane twice to cut the Bunnell lead to two, 31-29, with 3:16 left in the quarter.

Bunnell led 35-31 after three quarters but Mills took a 37-35 lead thanks to baskets inside by Mooney, Evans after grabbing the rebound and putting back in and Dinunzio in the lane from Pelletier with 6:07 left in the game.

“When you see the reaction of your guys and know all of the effort it took to get to this point, you wanted to make sure you let them know that nobody will forget everything they’ve done to get to this point just because you lost a basketball game,” Raponey said.

“This was the best team that I’ve ever coached. I will never forget them,” he said.

Mills was making their first final appearance since 1996 and just the third finals appearance in team history.

Lewis Mills players show the emotion of losing a hard-fought state championship game.

Bunnell 45, Lewis Mills 40
At Uncasville
Bunnell (45) Jordan Ricketts 7-0-15, Alex Munoz 3-0-6, Matthew Durate 0-0-0, J.T. Turnage 2-0-4, Jordan Pierce 3-3-9, Mike Ricketts 0-0-0, Roddy Ricketts 1-0-2, Nathaniel Banton 1-0-2, Karrell Brown 3-1-7, Michael DeVitto 0-0-0, Anthony Bogilo 0-0-0. Totals 20-4-45
Lewis Mills (40) Charlie Joiner 1-0-2, Tristan Mooney 2-2-7, Eli Pelletier 3-1-8, Jack Nestor 1-0-2, Connor Evans 5-0-10, Brett Harding 0-0-0, Gavin Daly 0-0-0, Thomas Dinunzio 4-3-11, Chad Edmond 0-0-0, Max Dinunzio 0-0-0. Totals 16-6-40
Bunnell (21-6)              15  14  6  10  — 45
Lewis Mills (19-6)       12  8  11  9  — 40
Three-point goals: Jordan Ricketts (B), Mooney (LM), Pelletier (LM)

Gerry deSimas, Jr., is the editor and founder of The Collinsville Press. He is an award-winning writer and has been covering sports in Connecticut and New England for more than 40 years. He was inducted into the New England High School Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2018.

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