By PHIL BRODSKY
Orange Live Sports Writer
Trailing by 22 points (43-21) with five minutes left in the third quarter, the 14th Amity boys basketball team seemed on the verge of being blown out and humiliated by 19th ranked Xavier in Monday night’s CIAC Class LL first round state tournament contest. Down but not out, Amity launched a ferocious, valiant come back that brought the Spartans within three points (55-52) with1 minute, 58 seconds left. The memorable rally ran out of steam at that point and the visiting Falcons went back home to Middletown with a 66-57 victory.
“We had nowhere to go and knew our backs were against the wall. At the start of the fourth quarter, we went to full court pressure and trapping to force turn overs that we were able to convert into points,” Amity Coach Jeff Nielsen said. “We fought really hard and got ourselves back into the game—but never had the lead. Our first quarter deficit was just too big to overcome.”
Consecutive drives by Nick Buttone in the final minute of the third quarter enabled the Spartans to shave Xavier’s lead back to 48-36. Zac Campbell who had been held to only six points over the first 24 minutes of play drained his third shot from beyond the arc with five minutes left in the contest. He followed that within the next minute he followed that with a trio of free throws and a jumper from the elbow to draw his team within 12 points (55-43).
After Xavier’s Tim Boyle (an All State quarterback who will join the UConn football team in the fall) canned a jump shot shortly before Campbell got hot, the Falcons did not score another point for nearly three minutes. During that span, the Spartans tossed in 11 straight points and chop their deficit back to only 3 points (55-52) with 1:58 left to play. In addition to Campbell’s offensive outburst, that Amity run also featured Ben LeVine and Matt Lettick steals that were converted into scores along with a put back by Sebastian DeMauro.
The Spartan surge was halted with Elijah Pemberton sinking two freebies. Shortly thereafter he followed with a three point play to give Xavier a more comfortable 60-52 advantage with 1:44 to go.
While Campbell closed out his blazing hot final session with his fourth three ball of the night with 43 seconds left on the clock and Gardner Broderick tossed in a jumper, the winners answered with pairs of successful foul shots from Thomas Jackson and Brandon MacPherson in the final 30 seconds. A key factor in the final outcome was Xavier swishing 12 of its 13 foul shots while Amity was good on only five of its 14 tries.
According to Nielsen, “Zac had that look in his eyes during the fourth quarter. He did everything he could do to get us the win by hitting those big shots late in the game, but hitting our foul shots was a deficiency for us all season.”
He added, “We had a chance to break their momentum when they got a technical foul (at 1:16). We had two foul shots and then the ball at mid court but lost that chance getting the momentum when we (Lettick) missed both foul shots. Xavier’s a good team and never let us back into the game. That’s what a good team does.”
Nielsen went on to explain that during the second half, the Falcons went with a smaller, quicker four guard offense that backfired as it helped Amity get back into contention.
The Spartans started the game stone-cold from the floor and missed their first three shots. Meanwhile Xavier scored the game’s first six points (four by senior guard James Sullivan who finished with a game-high 20 points). By the time the opening session ended, Amity hit only one of its 12 shots while the Falcons hit six of 10 and led 14-4. It was more of the same in the second quarter as Xavier outscored Amity 23-13 and had stacked up a 37-17 halftime lead.
“We took poor shots and rushed our offense during the first half while Xavier played with poise, was under control, and took the ball to the basket,” Nielsen said. “No matter what we tried, we couldn’t stop Xavier’s offense in the first half. On top of that, they went to a 1-3-1 zone defense and took us apart. They pressured us into taking poor shots and making weak passes. We never adjusted to their defensive moves. When we tried to go inside for easy lay-ups, we missed. The ball just wouldn’t go in for us during the first quarter.”
Obviously bothered by the Falcon defensive pressure, Amity committed 10 turnovers during the first half (and only six more in the second half) while Xavier had nine (six in the fourth quarter).
Coming off its horrible offensive start, Amity hit only seven of 25 ties (35%) in the first half but did much better (16 of 28 in the second half (57%) to end up connecting on 23 of 53 43%) for the game. Campbell closed out his high school career with a team-high 18 points. Lettick rang up 11 points and Broderick added 10. The red-hot Falcons were good on 17 of their 26 first half shots (65%) and led by Sullivan, and Pemberton’s 17 points, cashed out making half of their game total of 54 shots. Despite the final score, Amity outboarded the winners 38-34. Remi Farrell, Campbell, and Lettick each grabbed seven rebounds. Joe Carbone and Boyle had the same total for Xavier.
While the victorious 14-7 Falcons advance to a second round contest against third-ranked and 19-1 St. Joseph of Trumbull. Amity ends its season with a 15-7 record. In addition to Campbell, fellow seniors Broderick, Farrell, LeVine, Lettick, Gilbert Guo and Alex Tumenick all bid adieu to the Spartan fans.
“Losing our starting five and two top reserves means that we have to rebuilt next year. Our current juniors, sophomores, and freshmen will have to get stronger and step up their play to the varsity level. We have some experience coming back (Buttone, DeMauro, and Dave Ryan) but our younger players must grow up fast, Nielsen said.”