MONROE — In a battle between the underdogs and the undefeated Bulldogs, the upstart Newtown High School boys’ basketball team nearly pulled off an upset of Bunnell of Stratford in their South-West Conference Tournament quarterfinal round battle at Masuk High on February 23.
The tournament’s top-seeded Bulldogs (18-2 overall, and 14-0 in conference play), after trailing for much of the tightly contested game, overcame the Nighthawks (8-12 overall, 7-7), with a 54-47 win to move on in the tourney.
The Nighthawks executed a game plan to slow things down on offense, preventing the up-tempo Bulldogs — who piled up 80-plus points in ten games this winter — from running the floor and dictating the pace of the game. Newtown controlled the tempo and held Bunnell to a season-low point total, but even that wasn’t enough.
“They executed the slowdown plan that we needed to. We needed to keep this game in the 50s to win this game,” Newtown Coach Tim Tallcouch said. “We accomplished what we wanted to, they executed the game plan to a tee. Give ’em credit, give Bunnell credit — fourth quarter they scored when they needed to.”
The Bulldogs, in fact, scored more points in the fourth than they did in the first two quarters combined, putting 22 on the scoreboard to close out the game. The Hawks led 40-38 midway through the fourth before the Bulldogs took advantage of a few NHS miscues and some calls that went their way, to escape with the win.
Newtown held a 22-21 lead at halftime, and was ahead 35-32 through three quarters of play. Down 38-37, NHS took its last lead when Connor Quinn — who dropped in a game-high 25 points, most coming on drives to the basket — sank a 3-pointer with 4:54 to play. The Bulldogs quickly answered to even the score, then went ahead for good when Adam Samuel hit a pair of free throws following one of two late-game Newtown offensive fouls with the Hawks over the foul limit.
With the Bulldogs ahead 46-40 with just over three minutes left, a Bunnell player appeared to travel when he slid on the floor with the ball in hand, but the officials did not make the call, much to the frustration of the NHS faithful. Tallcouch argued for a traveling call and, caught up in the heat of the moment, slid on the court to mimic — and give the officials a visual of — the apparent traveling violation. No technical foul was issued. Nor was there a technical foul called on a Bunnell player despite a hard-rejection on Quinn, who was sent to the floor when he drove to the rim after the whistle sounded.
Bunnell, in part because of the presence of 6-foot-5 center Issac Vann (12 points, and 6-for-8 from the free throw line), got to the foul line for a whopping 14 more attempts than did Newtown. The Hawks were 4-for-7 from the line and the Bulldogs went 16-for-21 from the charity stripe when all was said and done. After the game, Tallcouch declined to talk about the officiating.
Down 48-40, the Hawks got back to within five. Patrick Riccardi hit one foul shot with 1:51 left, and Quinn dribbled to the rim, was fouled, and sank two freebies, making 48-43 with 1:22 to play. Bunnell’s Matthew Nolting (12 points) responded with a baseline 3-pointer with 1:01 left, the Hawks couldn’t recover.
Jake Ball and Julian Dunn both had eight points, and Riccardi and Mike Daubert both scored three for Newtown. Daubert and Quinn had six and four assists, respectively. Riccardi had four blocks and two steals, and Ball also came up with a pair of thefts.
Throughout the game, Bunnell’s student section was a nonstop chatterbox, chanting anything and everything that came to mind in an attempt to get under the skin of the Hawks — even in the closing seconds with the win well in hand. During all of this, the Hawks remained focused on their plan.
“We controlled the tempo and ran our stuff,” said Quinn, whose team fell to Bunnell twice during the regular season — 89-57 in a week-one blowout, and 77-64 in a late-season game in which Newtown had a third-quarter lead before the Bulldogs pulled away.
There would be no pulling away until the final minutes of their second rematch of the winter. Quinn opened the second-half scoring when he popped a 3-pointer, then scored a fast-break bucket following Riccardi’s defensive rebound. After the Bulldogs got to within 27-25, Ball dropped in a 3-pointer for a 30-25 advantage. Another Bunnell hoop was countered by a Newtown shot from downtown as, this time, Daubert sank one from behind the arc. Despite the fact Newtown couldn’t hold the lead, just staying in a game with a heavily-favored team proved something to the Hawks.
“It was a very enlightening game for me, and a very enlightening game for my players from the fact that if you believe in what you want to do and you’ve executed and you play hard for four quarters, good things will happen,” Tallcouch said.
Tallcouch expects a similar-type matchup in the opening round of the Class LL state tournament, beginning in early March. Newtown, Tallcouch noted that his team will face another city school, Crosby of Waterbury, in the opening round of states, and is excited about the prospects for success. Newtown earned the No. 29 seed and will visit No. 4 Crosby (19-1 overall) on Monday, March 4 at 7 pm.
“If we come out of this believing we can play with city schools … we play like this, and we can control the tempo, I think we’ll be okay,” the coach said.