By Ken Morse, Citizen’s News
WATERBURY — Fans stormed the court and chants of “Naugy” filled the air Wednesday at Wilby High, as the Garnet and Grey celebrated a championship more than 50 years in the making.
No. 2 Naugatuck used a second-half flurry to bury No. 4 Holy Cross, 73-54, in the Naugatuck Valley League boys basketball tournament final before a packed house at the Reggie O’Brien Gymnasium.
The victory gave the Greyhounds (22-1) their first NVL title since 1969 and first ever NVL tournament championship.
“I have been chasing this thing all my life,” Naugatuck head coach Mike Wilson said. “I chased this the whole four years I played (at Naugatuck) and to have it finally happen, it feels awesome. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have some sleepless nights thinking about it and dying to get to this point.”
The Greyhounds and Crusaders (17-6), who upset off top-seeded Sacred Heart in the semifinals, played the standard knock-them-down, drag-them-out type of affair for the first 16 minutes of the game. Three-pointers raised the adrenalin level and the occasional slam dunk whipped the crowd into a frenzy.
At the half, the Greyhounds clung to a 30-26 lead. That’s the closest Holy Cross would be the rest of the game.
Naugatuck sophomore center Avery Hinnant (19 points) yanked down defensive rebounds on three straight possessions to start the third quarter, leading to fast break buckets from Derrick Jagello (12 points) and Robert Sanders (19 points) around a three-point play by the Naugy big man.
The Crusaders retreated to a time out two minutes into the third quarter trailing 37-26. The slight break in the action did little to slow down the Greyhounds.
Hinnant got the crowd going with a thunderous dunk, which was followed by 3-point daggers by Keywan Garris (10 points) and Jagello, and a free throw by Ese Onakpoma (9 points).
This time, Holy Cross staggered to a timeout four minutes into the second half trailing 46-26 and still looking for its first points of the half. Holy Cross never recovered.
Hinnant was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.
“It feels great,” Hinnant said. “I was All-NVL and this is my first MVP. I love this team, they are family to me. They are like my brothers.”
The ’Hounds have shown a penchant for flipping the switch in the third quarter this season. They’ve outscored opponents in the third quarter in 22 of 23 games. That was the case again in the NVL semifinals March 2 when Naugatuck used a 33-3 third quarter to pull away to a 69-43 win over No. 6 Waterbury Career.
“I don’t know once we come out of the locker room at halftime we just lock in,” said Hinnant, who led Naugatuck with 18 points in the semifinals. “We work together playing defense and we are unselfish.”
Jagello added 15 points against Waterbury Career. Garris had 13 points, Sanders had nine points, while Onakpoma scored seven. Julaquis Minnifield (four points) and Ryan Noble (three points) finished the scoring for Naugy.
“I don’t know what I talk about at halftime,” Wilson said. “All I know is the boys are leveling it up every quarter. We clean it up at halftime and the boys believe in themselves.”
“We talk about basketball being a game of runs,” he added. “You have to be mentally, physically and emotionally tough, and this is a tough group right there.”
Naugatuck knocked off No. 7 Watertown, 72-43, in the quarterfinals Feb. 29. Hinnant and Sanders led the way with 17 points each. Jagello had 13 points and Onakpoma added 10 points.
The Greyhounds will now gear up for a run in the Division II state tournament. Naugatuck is the second seed and earned a bye in the first round. The Greyhounds open the tournament March 12 at home against the winner of the first-round game between No. 15 Waterbury Career and No. 18 Weaver.