Naugatuck boys basketball has big goals

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BY KYLE BRENNAN
CITIZEN’S NEWS
WATERBURY — Confidence radiates from the Naugatuck boys basketball team and coach Mike Wilson with the power of a grin fresh out of the dentist’s office.
Those who know Wilson and the Greyhounds know that their spirit isn’t the cocky type; it’s more like a we’ll-play-you-anywhere-and-anytime swagger.
Naugy’s earned the right to walk with its collective chest puffed out in recent years. The ‘Hounds reached the Class L final in 2015, won an historic Naugatuck Valley League title in 2020, and might have back-to-back Division II state championships right now if not for the pandemic.
So when observers looked at the CIAC postseason tournament divisions this winter and saw Naugatuck listed in Division I — the biggest of the big boys — it was reasonable to think that Wilson elected to play up and seek the most prestigious of the state championships.
“What? They threw us in there,” Wilson said, referring to the CIAC boys basketball committee’s decision to bump up the Greyhounds from Division II.
The coaching staff’s initial reaction to the news was mixed.
“Coach [Jahmal] Francis was [ticked],” Wilson said about his assistant. “He was like, ‘Dang, I wanted to stay in D-II — we had a real good chance!’ I wasn’t mad about it; I was pretty happy to be there. I’m a little crazy in that sense. Let’s go up there and bang with the big dogs. I like it. If you hang [a championship banner] up in D-I, that means the world. That’s where we want to be.”
Senior Ese Onakpoma, one of the team’s most talented players, is on board with his coach.
“He said that it was going to be a lot harder this year, but he thinks we can do it, and I think we can do it, too,” Onakpoma said. “We have to keep believing.”
The challenge awaiting Naugatuck in March gives the regular season an extra sense of urgency. Even in lopsided games — and only one of the Greyhounds’ first five victories came by fewer than 22 points — Wilson seeks growth.
“We are trying to gain something daily,” Wilson said. “We can’t look at the schedule and think that we’re going to roll over teams. We don’t want to pick up bad habits. You have to build game-winning habits at the end of games. We’ve been that lesser team many times, but sometimes when you play against a lesser team, you have to stay focused about who you are and stay disciplined. Our guys are so athletic that they’re dying to get out there and play.”
Two of Naugy’s first five games were case studies on this point. The Greyhounds beat Derby, 119-28, in a Dec. 21 game that was a blowout from the opening tip. It was 37-2 after one and 63-15 at the half. Wilson said it was difficult to balance the need to get his starters their reps versus not embarrassing the Raiders.
“We pulled our varsity because that is not what we are trying to do,” he said. “We want to play for a state championship but not like that. We are trying to go out there and play at a high level but the last thing we want to do is beat someone like that.”
In an 84-62 win over Crosby on Dec. 30, the ‘Hounds held a 36-point lead early in the fourth before pulling their starters. Nobody beats Crosby by that much, and the Greyhounds probably could have won the game by 40 or 50. They weren’t there for that. Instead, it was an opportunity for bench players to improve.
“It was just a team effort,” Wilson said. “Seven guys contributed. [Ryan] Noble and Perris [Sayler] are our sixth and seventh men, and they’re really helpful for us. They don’t get the limelight in terms of all the minutes, but those two mean the world to me. I can’t say enough about them and their commitment to this team.”
There are plenty of tests to come before the state tournament rolls around — two matchups against St. Paul, a Jan. 14 showdown with fellow Division I foe Notre Dame-Fairfield at the University of Bridgeport, and meetings with city rivals Holy Cross, Kennedy, and Wilby, not to mention the NVL tournament. But the Greyhounds’ message is clear.
“We can hang with anybody in the state,” Wilson said.
And they’ll get to prove it in March, when they finally get the state championship opportunity that a virus robbed from them twice.
“We’ve got unfinished business,” Onakpoma said. “We’ve gotta get to it. Every single game, we have to keep moving forward.”