By Kevin Roberts, Republican-American
WATERBURY — Maybe it was destiny, but the top-seeded Sacred Heart boys basketball team closed out Alumni Hall, and basketball at the school, on March 26 the only way it knew how: by winning.
After battling for 31 minutes against third-seeded Naugatuck, the Hearts got four key points from reserve Sheriff Bilewu, knocked down some foul shots and finally put away the Greyhounds, 57-50, in the Naugatuck Valley League tournament championship game.
Sacred Heart finished its final season a perfect 14-0, with one final league title. The school is closing at the end of the school year.
Naugatuck (10-3) got 17 points from Ese Onakpoma and 10 off the bench from Grzegrz Lutrzykowski. Jay Barth added eight points for the Greyhounds, who won the 2020 NVL tournament.
“We were in the game. That’s all you can ask for,” Naugatuck coach Mike Wilson said. “A couple possessions and sometimes the ball doesn’t bounce your way. Sacred Heart played great. They made plays.”
It was far from easy for the Hearts as both defenses put the clamps on the other side. Then some magic happened. Tre Duncan buried a long, contested 3-pointer from the right wing at the halftime buzzer to trim a seven-point deficit to four, 30-26.
The defenses made sure the third quarter was also hotly contested, and Sacred Heart struggled, but once again more magic happened. Steve Alseph banked in a 3-pointer from the left wing at the buzzer to put the Hearts down, 39-37, entering the final eight minutes of basketball in school history.
“We’re scuffling offensively, we’re stubbing our toe, we’re not getting a lot, and then (Tre Duncan) hit the three at the end of the half,” Sacred Heart coach Jon Carroll said. “Then we go and hit the three at the end of the third quarter. I’m thinking something must be going on here. Somebody must want us to win this game.”
Sacred Heart grabbed the lead, 43-42, on two Duncan free throws with 3:54 to play in the game. The lead was 49-48 after Greyhound junior Avery Hinnant spun and scored inside with one minute left.
Alseph went to the line for a one-and-one with 54.5 seconds left. He made the first and missed the second, but Bilewu snared the rebound and called timeout. Out of the huddle, Bilewu scored off an Alseph assist for a 52-48 lead. The Greyhounds never pulled closer than three points from there.
Naugatuck entered the tournament at a disadvantage. The Greyhounds had 11 days off between their last regular season game and first tournament contest due to a COVID-19 issue.
The Greyhounds started their tournament run on March 21 with two wins in two days, over No. 14 Crosby and No. 6 Holy Cross. Naugatuck beat No. 2 St. Paul in the semifinal.
“It was a different dynamic, there’s no questions about it,” Wilson said about the abbreviated 2021 season. “You never know. Any given night, everything can change in the blink of an eye.”
Wilson was proud of his team’s effort overall.
“As much as the loss burns right now, they cemented their legacy at Naugatuck,” Wilson said. “They’ve overcome a lot of adversity, and with losing, sometimes you’ve got to take a step back, but I’m super proud of them.”
Naugatuck loses Rob Sanders, Julaquis Minnifield, Barth and Lutrzykowski to graduation.
Sanders and Minnifield were chosen for the NVL All-Iron Division team. Barth was a starter and brought plenty of energy while Lutrzykowski provided contributions off the bench.
Hinnant and Onakpoma will be seniors in the 2021-22 season and both will be coming off back-to-back All-NVL selections.
Jayshawn Lindsay and Aiden Robertson both saw playing time off the bench and will also be seniors next season.