Naugatuck boys advance to NVL title game

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By Ken Morse, Citizen’s News

Naugatuck’s Ese Onakpoma (2) lays up a shot between St. Paul’s Erik Suzio (30) and Jackson Sullivan (5) during a NVL semifinal game on March 24 at St. Paul Catholic in Bristol. -JIM SHANNON/REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN

NAUGATUCK — Winning a championship may be easier than defending that title.

The defending Naugatuck Valley League boys basketball champion Greyhounds found themselves in that position when the season began — a season like no other with no assurance that the next game on the schedule would even be played.

Naugatuck experienced firsthand the twists and turns of a season played against the backdrop of a pandemic, when the team’s last three regular season games were canceled due to COVID-19 issues.

Naugatuck head coach Mike Wilson was concerned how his team, which finished the regular season 7-2, would respond in the Naugatuck Valley League tournament after two weeks of quarantining and not being able to get together or practice.

The Hounds proved to their coach they were not sitting at home on the couch. Naugatuck won three games in four days to reach the NVL final for the second straight year.

No. 3 Naugatuck (10-2) will play No. 1 Sacred Heart (13-0) on March 25 at Alumni Hall in Waterbury for the championship. Tipoff is at 7 p.m.

“It’s really an accomplishment to get back there and defend the title,” Naugatuck head coach Mike Wilson said. “I don’t know of too many Naugatuck teams that can claim that, if ever. Not too many kids get that opportunity and this team is embracing the moment.”

Sacred Heart won the only regular season meeting between the two schools, 62-59 on Feb. 27. The second game was canceled because of the COVID-19 issue.

The Greyhounds made it look relatively easy in the first three rounds of the tournament.

Naugatuck beat Crosby, 69-57, in the first round on March 21. Avery Hinnant led all scorers with 19 points. Robert Sanders dropped 16 points, Ese Onakpoma chipped in with 13 and Jayshawn Lindsay added 11.

Sanders, a senior, began the season at Dunbar High School in Florida, where he lived with his father. When the season ended in Florida, Sanders moved back to Naugatuck. He was cleared by the CIAC to rejoin the Greyhounds and has provided a spark to an already explosive Greyhound offense.

Naugy turned up the defensive effort in a second-round game against Holy Cross on March 21. After taking a 31-26 lead into halftime, the Greyhounds held the Crusaders to seven points in third quarter on their way to a 68-51 win.

This time it was Onakpoma who had the hot hand, leading the way with 27 points. Hinnant scored 18 points and Sanders had 16.

Naugatuck’s Avery Hinnant (4) tries to slam in two points during a NVL semifinal game on March 24 at St. Paul Catholic in Bristol. -JIM SHANNON/REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN

“We take pride in playing defense,” Wilson said. “We really locked in since the tournament started. I was a little concerned about how they would respond after being down for two weeks. We were just hitting our stride when we had to shut it down.”

In the semifinals March 24 against St. Paul, which dealt the Greyhounds their first defeat of the season, the Falcons focused on stopping Onakpoma and held him to three points.

But Naugy plays team basketball. The Hounds spread the offense around and once again locked in on defense to pull away with convincing 61-39 win. Sanders took the reins and dropped a team-high 22 points on the Falcons. Hinnant scored 17 points and Lindsay chipped in with nine points.

“We are not too concerned with who is scoring,” Wilson said. “Every game someone steps up. Early on we had Julaquis Minnifield hit for six threes, leading the team scoring with 30 points against Watertown. Ese has scored over 20 four times, Lindsay has a season-high of 16.”

“Even the bench has been consistent. Aiden Robertson hit for 10 points in one game and Jay Barth has scored seven points three times this year,” Wilson continued. “We don’t worry about who is scoring. We concern ourselves with playing solid defense, that’s what wins games.”