A thrilling run to the Sun

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By Kyle Brennan, Citizen’s News

 

This is the second story of a series commemorating anniversaries of significant moments in local sports history. Our second story looks at the five-year anniversary of the Naugatuck High basketball team’s run to the 2015 Class L state final at Mohegan Sun.

Mike Wilson can’t believe it’s been five years since the 2015 Class L boys basketball final. He still remembers every detail of Naugatuck’s 72-61 loss to Bunnell in the Greyhounds’ first state championship appearance in 41 years.

But there’s one thing he still can’t do when it comes to that game.

“I haven’t gone back and watched that film,” Wilson said. “I can’t go back and watch it.”

Captain Jason Bradley is still on the same page as his former coach.

“When I tell my buddies stories from that season, I definitely like talking about the four wins, but the loss still stings,” Bradley said. “Even though it’s five years ago, it’s still fresh. You only get one opportunity to win games like that. I know Mike and I still haven’t watched that game, and I don’t know if we ever will.”

The ending was unfulfilling, but the Greyhounds’ run to Mohegan Sun was among the most thrilling tournament performances Naugy’s ever had in any sport.

Naugatuck went 16-4 in the regular season thanks to an ultra-talented lineup that included two All-State players, guard Dayvon Russell and forward Jarron Chapman, the latter a senior transfer from Crosby. The Greyhounds also boasted guards Bradley and C.J. Wall and forwards Fejiro Onakpoma and James Mesidor, among others.

Chapman was Naugy’s top scorer and immediately developed chemistry with the Greyhounds’ returners.

“You never know how that’s going to work out with a transfer,” Wilson said. “Jarron’s a special player and he fit in our system really well. He was selfless. He didn’t give us any headaches at all. He came in with Jason Bradley, Dayvon Russell, the rest of the guys, and they blended right away.”

Wilson had an inkling that the ‘Hounds had something special on their hands after preseason scrimmages in New Haven.

“We played Wilbur Cross and Hyde in the preseason, and we were right there with them,” Wilson said. “I had a good feeling right there that we could shake some trees with this team. They kept getting better every day.”

Naugy started the season 6-0 but lost two of its next three, including an 88-59 drubbing at the hands of Sacred Heart and its future Division I star, Mustapha Heron. Wilson said that experience was a catalyst for success later in the winter.

“We came together that day and turned the corner,” Wilson said. “It’s funny how losses do that to you. We got hot at the end of the regular season.”

Naugatuck went 9-2 down the stretch and reached the Naugatuck Valley League semifinals, where they fell to Crosby. Still, the Greyhounds entered the Class L tournament as the No. 7 seed but drew a tough first-round matchup against No. 26 Harding of Bridgeport.

“We knew we could make a run,” Bradley said. “We had a lot of experience and some really talented players. Jarron could do it all. Dayvon was an unbelievable point guard. C.J. came up huge for us down the stretch. Guys like Fejiro were grabbing rebounds. We didn’t know we would end up in the final, but we thought we could make a run.”

In a frenetic final 21 seconds against Harding, Chapman split a pair of free throws to give Naugy a 58-57 lead. Harding’s T.J. Killings responded by weaving his way for a go-ahead layup with 12 seconds left, but the ‘Hounds jetted back in transition and Chapman rolled in the game-winning layup with six seconds remaining for a 60-59 victory.

“How’d we get out of that game and make it to a state final?” Wilson asked rhetorically. “That was all part of the learning process for us.”

After sinking late free throws to pull away from No. 10 Wilton for a 62-54 win in the second round, the Greyhounds saddled up to visit a sold-out gym at No. 2 Middletown in the quarterfinals. Before a raucous and hostile crowd, the teams put on a first-half clinic that saw the ‘Hounds snag a 49-41 lead at halftime.

Midway through the third quarter, Bradley tossed an alley-oop pass to Chapman for a thunderous slam that ignited an 18-9 run and ended in a 96-83 upset, sending Naugy to its first state semifinal since 1974.

“We put that play in toward the end of the season,” Bradley recalled. “We were just clicking that night and when Wilson called that play, we knew it was going to blow the roof off that game. You could just see as that play developed and we executed it, all five of us on the court just got big smiles on our faces.”

“We were orchestrating that night,” said Wilson, whose team was led by Chapman’s 30 points, Russell’s 25 and Bradley’s 16. “That was one of those nights — I’m always second-guessing myself — but we were calling plays and I looked like I knew what I was doing. We had such good leadership — Jason and Dayvon, those guys were running the show. That’s all you can ask for, that leadership from the guards.”

Bradley and Chapman hooked up for another clutch play in the semifinals against No. 3 Career of New Haven. Clinging to a 63-61 lead with 7.9 seconds left, Bradley heaved a three-quarters-court inbounds pass to Chapman for the final dunk in a 65-61 win before 1,800 fans in East Haven.

In the Class L final, Naugy battled No. 5 Bunnell of Stratford as the ‘Hounds sought their first state title since 1942. Although the Greyhounds jumped out to 15-6 lead, the Bulldogs exploited a 30-8 disparity in fast-break points and limited Naugy’s perimeter attack to pull away throughout the game.

Wilson says he recalls more details about the championship loss than he does about the four victories that preceded it.

“If you’re a competitor, wins are great but losses burn,” Wilson said. “Those sit in your body and you think about them.”

Still, what Wilson and Bradley remember most about that five-game run is the sea of Garnet and Grey that followed his team to arenas across the state.

“That gives me goosebumps,” Wilson said. “That’s the epitome of Naugatuck. When we get rolling, we show up. We talk about that early in the season often: ‘If we get this thing rolling, we’ll pack the gym like you’ve never seen.’ You think about Middletown and Career, you had to turn off your phone because people were trying to get in to sold-out gyms.”

“All the support we got was really special and unbelievable,” said Bradley, who is now the freshmen boys hoops coach at Woodland. “It’s a testament to the town of Naugatuck that they supported us the way they did. That Career game — we probably had a 4-to-1 advantage in our crowd size. Thousands of people went to Mohegan Sun just for us. It was really unbelievable.”

Wilson, whose staff that year consisted of Brett Hayward, Jahmal Francis, Brett Bisson and John Minicucci, also recalls what he said to his team in the Mohegan Sun locker room after the championship defeat.

“There isn’t one person in that locker room who didn’t give everything they possibly could,” Wilson said. “There was a lot of positive reflection in there. The line I like to use is, ‘If this is the worst thing that happens to you in your life, you’re going to live a good life.’”