Woodland boys qualify for state tourney

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Greyhounds secure No. 2 seed in NVL and Division II tournaments

Woodland’s Nate Bodnar (20) puts up a shot as Wilby’s Raekwon James (22) defends him during a game Feb. 27 at Woodland Regional High School in Beacon Falls. –ELIO GUGLIOTTI

BEACON FALLS — Although the second half of the regular season didn’t produce the victories that Woodland boys basketball coach John Mariano would have liked, he’s still optimistic about the Hawks’ upcoming appearance in the Division IV state tournament.

Woodland (8-12) earned the 29th and final seed in the tournament. The Hawks will visit No. 4 Joel Barlow (15-5) in the first round March 10.

Despite going 3-7 during the second half of the campaign, Mariano thinks his team is better now than it was when the Hawks held the Naugatuck Valley League Copper Division lead at the midpoint.

“I watch us and think we’re a lot better than we were at the beginning of the year,” the first-year coach said. “I honestly think we’ve made good growth as a team. At the beginning of the year, we won a lot of our close games. Then we lost three close games in a row. We really became a terrific defensive team, but we lost our rhythm a little bit. We went through a little shooting slump and were missing a lot of layups.”

Most of the Hawks’ lineup had only one season of varsity experience entering this season, and Mariano believes the length of the campaign — paired with Woodland’s intense, grinding, defensive style — led to a couple of hiccups.

“The basketball season is really long and we’re a younger team with some inexperienced guys out there,” Mariano said. “It takes a while to get used to the grind of the season. I’m going nine deep, so guys have earned my trust. It’s not easy to come off the bench. Joey and Robby have done a nice job of not letting it affect their production. Our starters have played terrific all year, and I think we’ve become a better team because our depth has improved.”

Mariano also cited the positive play of Conrad Filippone and Brady Anderson off the bench.

Woodland punched its postseason ticket with a 66-50 win over Kaynor Tech on Feb. 25, when Jason Palmieri netted a game-high 27 points with 15 more from Nathaniel Smith.

The Hawks ended the regular season with a 58-51 loss to Wilby Feb. 27. Robert Moriarty led the Hawks with 14 points. Smith and Nate Bodnar added 11 and 10 points, respectively.

As for the state tournament, Mariano said he doesn’t want his Hawks to collect a door prize and check out.

“We need to have the never-satisfied attitude,” Mariano said. “Yeah, we made states, and that’s great. But you don’t just make states, get a trophy, and that’s it. We’re not going through the motions. We’re going to prepare to win and we should expect to win. My message to the kids is that this is a new season. It’s a great opportunity for us. It’s great that we get a little break, we can recharge, and we can give it a go.”

Naugy nabs No. 2 seed: Despite losing a 67-62 thriller against Sacred Heart in the Feb. 21 battle of unbeatens, Naugatuck earned the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the Division II state tournament with a 19-1 record. Only undefeated Prince Tech topped the Greyhounds.

Naugy will host a second-round game March 12, possibly against No. 15 Waterbury Career — the only city school the Greyhounds didn’t face during the regular season.

Coach Mike Wilson and his ‘Hounds hope to be busy during the week before the state tournament. Naugatuck is also the No. 2 seed in the NVL tournament, which begins Saturday with the quarterfinals at Wilby High School.

The Greyhounds will play No. 7 Watertown at 12:45 p.m. in the quarterfinals. The semifinals are Monday with the championship game on Wednesday at Wilby.

Naugatuck’s Ese Onakpoma (2) slams home two points during a game against Sacred Heart Feb. 21 at Sacred Heart High School in Waterbury. – JIM SHANNON/REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN

The Greyhounds are seeking their first league title since 1969 and will likely have to beat No. 1-seeded Sacred Heart to end the drought.

In the Feb. 21 meeting at sold-out Alumni Hall in Waterbury, Naugy led for the entire third quarter but fell behind with 4:38 left in the game. Turnovers plagued the Greyhounds in the final minutes — understandable with the raucous atmosphere.

“There were a couple of moments where we didn’t execute, I felt like, it slowed us down a little bit. … The place was rocking,” Wilson told Hearst Media after the game. “They were smart to keep it here (at Alumni Hall), because if it had been somewhere else, we might had 5,000 (fans) the way my phone was ringing today.”

Naugatuck held the No. 9 ranking in the state media poll despite the loss. Avery Hinnant had a monster game with 28 points and 17 rebounds, and he followed it up in the regular-season finale Feb. 25 with a 27-point outing in a 71-59 victory over Crosby. Robert Sanders and Derrick Jagello had 16 and 15 points, respectively, against the Bulldogs.

If Naugy wants to repeat its success from five years ago and make a run to the state finals at Mohegan Sun, the experience against the Hearts — who will play in the Division I tourney — could come in handy.

“They competed, they fought, my young boys were ready to go.” Wilson told Hearst Media. “We couldn’t ask for a better opportunity to come into a wild gym on the road against the No. 3 team in the state which obviously has an incredible streak going on right now. This puts a chip on our shoulder, that’s all it should do.”