WATERBURY — After one of the most emotional weeks in the history of Woodland’s athletics program, it’s a wonder how the Hawks boys basketball team did what it did last Friday night at Wilby.
The night after the funeral of George Pinho, father of junior Jack Pinho and assistant football coach, Woodland upset undefeated and No. 2-ranked Wilby, 79-76.
Pinho unexpectedly passed away Jan. 19. The following week, Woodland head coach Tom Hunt tried to help manage his team’s grief by trying to keep a regular practice schedule.
“The coaching staff felt that it was best to keep things as normal as possible,” Hunt said. “We wanted to keep them around each other. We practiced every day. Even Wednesday [the day of Pinho’s wake] we practiced early. We wanted to keep them focused and together.”
The result of that structure was a level of determination Friday night Hunt hadn’t seen all year.
“We prepared hard going in,” Hunt said. “They came into that game more focused than I’ve seen them all year. The preparation was there. They had it in their minds that they were going to give maximum effort.”
Effort was part of the success. Execution was just as important, especially as Woodland (8-5) showed the Wildcats that they were in for a game.
“[Assistant coaches] Mike [Kingsley], Shane [Kingsley], and I preach to the guys all the time that we run good stuff and it just takes execution,” Hunt said. “A lot of stuff we were running was being executed. They had the belief that what we were doing was going to be successful. The later we got, the more the guys believed in it.”
Woodland led after each period, including a 36-33 advantage at halftime and a 50-45 lead entering a frenetic fourth quarter. The teams combined to score 60 points in the final frame and the Hawks kept up with Wilby’s fast tempo, working through a full-court press.
Woodland opened up its lead early in the fourth but the Wildcats cut it down to a four-point deficit with 3 minutes to play. With an inbounds pass coming from the opposite baseline out of a timeout, Hunt and his staff decided they needed a play they’ve never before used in a game.
“We needed to keep the lead and we knew we needed to get a bucket,” Hunt said. “They had called a timeout so we knew they were going to press us. Mike’s had a play he calls the Randy Moss play that we’ve practiced for three years but never had a spot to unveil it. He drew it up on the board and we executed for a layup. The kids loved it. The next day he wore the Randy Moss jersey to practice.”
Rahmi Rountree scored 33 points and pulled down 15 rebounds for Woodland while Dave Uhl (21 points) and Tanner Kingsley (15 points, nine assists) helped keep up the pace. Uhl hit two free throws with 13 seconds left to give the Hawks a three-point lead.
“Rahmi played a heck of a game, making big shots at big times,” Hunt said. “Dave’s shown such leadership in big times. I was more than pleased to have the outcome of that game in his hands. All the hard work he’s put in has helped make him successful.”
Wilby’s Walter Wright, who scored a game-high 35 and hit the buzzer-beater in an early-season thriller against Crosby, saw his potential game-tying 3-pointer clang off the rim at the buzzer.
After that shot fell to the floor, Woodland’s players and fans spilled onto the floor.
“To have Woodland fans coming out of the stands with tears in their eyes, it was amazing to see,” Hunt said. “Jane [Pinho, George’s widow] came out and hugged the players as they were leaving the floor. It was just so big. Just to be part of that, and to be on the right side of that, is just phenomenal.”
In the locker room, Hunt had a simple message for his team.
“My statement at the end of the game was, ‘If you believe in a higher presence, this is the reason why,’” Hunt said. “It just had everything: the David and Goliath scenario, Jack’s family being there. I’m not sure what was bigger — knocking off No. 2 or having the Pinhos be so satisfied with the effort the guys put out.”