NAUGATUCK — It was exactly what a mid-winter Friday night in the Valley should be. Two teams who don’t like each other, two fan sections trying to one-up the other, and a pretty darned good basketball game in the midst of it all.
Twice Naugatuck mounted big leads and twice Woodland wiped them out, but strong free throw shooting by the Greyhounds inside the final minute and a half helped them come away with a 66-57 win before several hundred fans in the borough.
Clinging to a 58-55 lead with 1:30 to play, Naugatuck went 8-for-10 from the charity stripe to ice the game. Senior guard Mick Pernell, calm as could be, hit five of the last six from the line to keep Woodland at bay.
“I’ve been shooting foul shots forever,” Pernell said of his loose style while standing 15 feet away from the rim. “When I first started Jeff (his stepfather) always had me shooting foul shots. I’m just really comfortable at the line.”
Naugy needed the strong free throw effort to prevent Woodland from coming all the way back after the ‘Hounds took a 50-34 lead after three quarters. They mounted that lead thanks to a 13-0 finish to the period.
The Hawks wasted no time in getting back into the game, starting the fourth on a 13-2 run thanks to a pair of 3-pointers by Tanner Kingsley and a three-point play by Kirk Chamenko. After the Greyhounds re-extended their lead to 58-50 on a pair of free throws by Husani Foote, a runner by David Uhl and three free throws by Kingsley and Rahmi Rountree made it a 58-55 game with 1:41 to play.
“One of the goals when we got down 16 was for us to know that we weren’t going to get it all back at once,” Woodland coach Tom Hunt said. “We set an attainable goal to cut it to eight with 4 minutes left. At 5:22 we did that (on a Kingsley 3-pointer). I thought our kids did a great job of recognizing what we needed to do.”
But the Hawks went cold from the floor over the last minute and a half, allowing Naugy to ice the game at the line.
The Greyhounds twice built big leads. They started the game on a 9-0 run, including a 3-pointer by Jerome Love for the night’s first bucket and a three-point play by Brandon Kuczenski that ignited a feisty Naugy student section.
“I love it when the gym’s loud,” Kuczenski said. “It makes the game more exciting. It’s more enjoyable to play.”
Woodland quickly erased that lead, finishing the quarter on a 13-4 spurt on the back of Uhl, who knocked down two 3-pointers and scored 11 of the Hawks’ points in the period.
Uhl kept up that pace in the second, giving Woodland its first lead at 16-15 with a 3-pointer before helping the Hawks claw back after falling behind again by eight. His fourth 3-pointer made it a 27-22 game before a layup made it 29-24 late in the half. Rahmi Rountree, the only other Hawk with multiple scores in the first half, made it a 31-26 deficit at the half with a pair of free throws.
“David Uhl has been playing phenomenal all year,” Hunt said. “Rahmi was away for a year so he’s finding his role. He’s been playing hard all year but now he’s playing hard with a purpose.”
Three times early in the third quarter Woodland pulled to within three — all thanks to Uhl and Rountree — before Kuczenski finally reestablished himself following a long stretch on the bench in the first half with foul trouble.
Kuczenski powered Naugy on its 13-0 run to finish the third, including a pair of layups off offensive rebounds and another layup to push the lead to double digits for the first time.
“I wanted to come out after halftime and play strong and make a presence,” Kuczenski said. “That helped open up everyone else.”
The victory was Naugy’s second in a row following a five-game losing streak. The Greyhounds (5-6) lost to a surging Watertown squad on Tuesday, but Kuczenski thinks the team is finding its rhythm after an up-and-down start.
“At the beginning of the season everyone was telling us that we were going to be the best team in the NVL,” said Kuczenski, whose team will host Ansonia on Friday and St. Paul on Wednesday. “We came out and didn’t play good teams, then we played good teams and started losing games. We realized that teams could knock us off. We had some good practices and now we’re rolling.”
Woodland (6-5) broke its five-game skid Tuesday night with a 67-57 win over Holy Cross, the Hawks’ first-ever victory over the Crusaders. Woodland will visit Sacred Heart on Friday before returning home next week to finish Copper Division play against Kennedy and Wilby.