NAUGATUCK — The Naugatuck boys basketball team started the second of the half of the season like it ended the first half — perfect — and passed its biggest test to date.
The Greyhounds put their undefeated mark on the line Jan. 28 against Holy Cross, which entered the game with three losses, in front of a full house at the Pit on Ornoke Road in Waterbury.
Naugatuck’s 72-60 win would suggest the Greyhounds’ (12-0) first real Naugatuck Valley League test turned into nothing more than a pop quiz, but the Crusaders (10-4) were more than up for the challenge.
Naugy managed to get out of the first quarter with a 17-14 lead and went into halftime protecting a slim 34-30 advantage.
The Greyhounds turned it on in the third quarter. They didn’t let what the scoreboard showed effect their game. They didn’t let the noise from the crowd effect their game. They didn’t let the Crusaders effect their game. They just kept grinding, as they’ve done all season.
Avery Hinnant (22 points, 21 rebounds) swatted away a couple of Holy Cross shots on the first two trips down the court to spark the Greyhounds.
Naugy held a 42-33 advantage three minutes into the second half. Two minutes later, the Greyhounds extended the lead to 50-35 and were threatening to turn the game into a blowout.
Holy Cross stormed back, though. With 4:22 left to play, the Crusaders cut the lead to 57-50.
Naugy came out of a timeout with the Holy Cross gymnasium buzzing. Hinnant hit a shot in the lane and then buried a pair at the free throw line to quiet the home crowd.
The Crusaders pushed the ball up court looking to respond only to have Jay Barth (five points) swoop in, steal the ball and take it coast-to-coast for a one-handed jam as the Naugy fans erupted.
“We have been talking about the third quarter all season,” Naugatuck head coach Mike Wilson said. “That’s our time to stretch opponents out. Holy Cross is just as good a team as we are. The ball broke for us a bit tonight, and in the end our guys made plays.”
“This is the hardest gym to win in,” Wilson added. “We felt the heat down the stretch and made some uncharacteristic plays turning the ball over. But we kept our composure and that’s what you need to do in those situations.”
Ese Onakpoma led the team with 27 points and Derrick Jagello added 10 points.
In Wilson’s mind and the mind of these Greyhounds, the Holy Cross win is just one game, and there’s a lot of basketball still to be played.
“I just told the kids to embrace the opportunity,” Wilson said. “It’s not every day you get to play in this kind of exciting atmosphere. We just need to stay focused and keep grinding every day.”
The win at Holy Cross followed an 86-43 victory over Derby Jan. 25. Hinnant scored 23 points and Jagello added 16 in the win. Onakpoma chipped in with 15 points.
Naugatuck will play Torrington on Friday and Watertown on Tuesday.