BEACON FALLS—March Madness might be a month away, but the Woodland boys basketball team is going to get an early taste in a February frenzy over the crucial last few weeks of the regular season.
Woodland is in the midst of its most prolonged slump of the season, having fallen to 7-6 after starting a school-record 5-1.
The Hawks went from the Brass Division favorite in early January to falling behind Watertown (9-4) and St. Paul (11-3) in the division after losses to both teams over the last few weeks.
Leading scorer Yahmad Rountree said there’s a notable difference between the team’s play during its hot streak in December and its cold stretch now.
“We think that we can always play catch-up with every team we play,” Rountree said. “Some games, we get a decent lead, think the game is over, then the other team makes a comeback. Once we notice how close the game really is, we try to play as strongly as we did in the first half, but by then it’s too late.”
That describes perfectly the Hawks’ disappointing, 64-62 loss to Watertown last Friday. Woodland jumped out to a lead that it enjoyed throughout the first half before falling behind in the third quarter.
Rahmi Rountree hit a pair of 3-pointers inside the final minute of the game to close the deficit, but Yahmad’s 16-footer at the buzzer went begging to essentially eliminate the Hawks from contention for the Brass Division championship.
“That was the biggest loss of the season,” Rountree said. “A lot of our plans for this season are falling apart. The last thing we wanted was to settle for just making the [NVL and state] tournaments. We need to start working on not slacking off when we have a comfortable lead.”
The problems for Woodland expand to several key facets of the game, including rebounding and perimeter defense. Rountree has also seen defenses focus more on defending him, to which the team is still adjusting.
“When teams come out in the second half looking for a comeback, of course they’re going to give it all they’ve got on the defensive end,” Rountree said. “In the fourth quarter of the Watertown game, I didn’t touch the ball the first four or five minutes. I can put up with tough defense—so can the rest of the team—but I can’t score if I don’t touch the ball.”
Woodland has developed a diverse scoring attack with three players—Yahmad (19.0 ppg), Rahmi (12.3), and Ryan Angeloszek (11.5)—and is one of just five teams in the Naugatuck Valley League with three players averaging in double figures.
The final few weeks of the regular season will bring key tests against Holy Cross, Ansonia, Torrington, and St. Paul. The Hawks are also on track to make the NVL tournament for the first time in school history and are just one win shy of making the Class M state tournament in back-to-back years for the first time.
Rountree thinks the team has the capability to recapture the success it enjoyed early in the season and can be dangerous in the postseason.
“We can do damage in the tournament,” Rountree said. “We just have to have the same want, mental toughness, and heart that we did in the beginning of the season. We can’t take our foot off the gas and think that we are going to get a win by laying back and giving it our all. We’re just going to take it one game at a time and if we want it, I believe we can accomplish any task thrown at us.”