NAUGATUCK — They don’t call it March Madness for nothing. The Little Pal senior boys basketball tournament had all the highs and lows that give meaning to the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.
The fifth-seeded Firefighters got by the fourth-seed B&G Sports in the quarterfinals with third-seeded Nardelli’s defeating sixth-seed ION Bank. Then the semifinals came down to a couple of knee-bucklers when top seed Post fell in overtime by one point to the Firefighters. Not to be outdone, Nardelli’s exacted revenge against the only team to beat them all season as they knocked off the No. 2 Elks by just two points.
The stage was set for the final showdown last week at the City Hill Middle School gymnasium with the Firefighters taking on Nardelli’s in the best-of-three series for the Little Pal title. The Grinder Boys were down one player for the final series, missing Nelson Lavoura who played an integral role during the 11-2 regular season.
On March 17 Nardelli’s got out to a 20-point lead and coasted to a 53-39 win as Matt Polek led the way for the Grinder Boys by scoring 11 points. Fran Phelan kept the Firefighters within striking distance as he knocked down a game-high 16 points.
On Saturday in Game 2 of the series, Nardelli’s jumped out to a big halftime lead and then hung on down the stretch in a white-knuckle affair as the Grinder Boys (15-2) escaped with a 61-55 win and laid claim to the Little Pal championship.
“That says an awful lot about the character of these kids,” Nardelli’s head coach Jim Stevens said. “They never gave up. I told them when we made the playoffs that we are in it to win it and the kids never quit.”
Back in November when Stevens, along with assistant coaches Jim Goggin and Bob Bruno, got together they knew that there was something special about this group.
“We had two solid players that could get the ball up court,” Stevens said. “We had a couple of big guys who could establish themselves in the paint and we had the makings of a very talented B-squad. You don’t win this league with a couple of hot shot shooters. You need 12 kids working towards the same goal playing unselfish team basketball. These kids had confidence in each other and that’s what carried them down the stretch in those tight games.”
Nardelli’s came out strong in the opening period with Jade Bennett (eight points, seven rebounds, six assists) knocking down six points as the Grinder Boys opened a quick 8-2 advantage. Gawayne Fisher (14 points) began throwing running one-handers down the lane and his 11 first-period points opened up a 17-8 advantage.
Phelan (12 points, nine rebounds) made sure the Firemen didn’t get run out of the gym and Shane Carey (eight points, 11 rebounds) muscled his way to enough rebounds to establish an inside presence.
Kyle Carey, Devven Michaud and Andres Maldonado came on to try to spark the Firefighters B-squad in the second period. But there was just no stopping Dante Bowden (nine points), who scored six in a row, including a nifty pass through traffic from Nathan Deptula, that turned a 23-12 game into a 29-12 lead and caused Firefighters head coach Glenn Petelle to call a timeout with 2:45 left in the half.
Matthew Carroll (14 points) got himself open for a couple of pull-up jumpers as the Firefighters began to come back. Kevin Klimaszewski (seven rebounds) created second and third opportunities coming away with rebounds. But Keywan Edwards-Garris (13 points) put the exclamation point on the first half by burying a 3-pointer at the buzzer for Nardelli’s, which opened up a commanding 37-18 advantage.
David Green and Austin Herb (four points and three rebounds each) began to give the Firefighters the edge on the boards in the third period. That helped to slow down Nardellis and cut into the deficit.
Justin Ramos (four points, four rebounds) managed to keep Nardelli’s out in front. Kobe Bennett turned up the defensive pressure and when Nick Bruno hit a shot down on the baseline, the Grinder Boys took a 48-31 lead into the final period.
Nardelli’s began to go through long spurts in between baskets. Matt Smith hit a shot from the corner as the Firefighters began to pull out all the stops. The Grinder Boys took their last double-digit lead at 54-43 on a bucket off the window from Brian Goggin (10 rebounds) with 4:10 to play.
The Firemen were determined when Jonny Warren threw in a put-back and Carroll was wide open for a 3-pointer from the corner as Nardelli’s scrambled to a timeout at the 1:47 mark clinging to a 54-50 lead.
The Grinder Boys came out of the timeout and Matt Polek (eight rebounds, five points) went hard to the rack for a bucket. But Carroll came down the floor again and rippled a 3-pointer through the net. Sebastian Puczyski (four points, eight rebounds) soon slammed in a put-back to cut the lead to 57-55 with under a minute to play.
The Firefighters held a 14-9 edge in rebounds in the final period, but if it wasn’t for Goggin ripping one down with 38 seconds left there may have been a third game to decide the title. Jade Bennett knocked down a free throw and dished it off to Christian Barrett with 20 seconds left for the clinching basket in the 61-55 victory.