Published February 16. 2013 3:34PM
Entering a season following a state tournament team that graduated four seniors a winter prior, the Haddam-Killingworth boys’ basketball squad was unsure of the ride it would endure during the 2012-13 campaign. Two things were for certain however, in that the Cougars knew their goals were both Class S and Shoreline Conference tournament berths. Following a two-game skid before Winter Storm Nemo, HK could accomplish one of those objectives with one win in its final four games.
The Cougars went above and beyond the minimum, as they earned a pair of impressive Shoreline wins over rivals Morgan and Coginchaug to carve a spot in the state tournament. HK first earned the eighth win at home on Feb. 13 against the Huskies 54-44 before getting back to .500 two nights later in a win at the Blue Devils 43-34. First-year Coach Ryan Mackenzie is more than pleased with his group’s achievement, but knows the bar has been set even higher now.
“We started the season with those two goals of making both the state and Shoreline tournaments,” said Mackenzie, whose Cougars moved to 9-9 after the two triumphs. “The eighth win versus Morgan was the culmination of all the hard work we put into it this season to get to this point. After that game, we were all smiling in the locker room, because we knew we worked for this and each of those wins. It was also a big moment for our seniors. The tournament berth is a showing of what this team has become this season; we graduated four key guys last year and did not know what to expect. We are still in the hunt for the conference tournament; with wins in our last two games, it would put us around the seventh spot out of eight teams.”
Versus the Blue Devils, senior center Colin O’ Brien finished with 17, while sophomore guard Luke Ford came through with 13. Against Morgan at home, O’ Brien led all HK scorers with 23, plus senior guard Dan Day had 12 and fellow senior guard Nick Landell had nine.
“Day played a fantastic game versus Morgan, and he has really started playing like a senior lately in the starting lineup,” said Mackenzie, whose Cougars finish with Morgan on Feb. 18 and Old Saybrook on Feb. 20. “He is helping distribute the scoring more for this team. We have also begun to shoot better from three-point land in these last two games, having four versus Morgan and another two versus Coginchaug.”
Against the Huskies, the Cougars came out firing on all cylinders, taking shots and playing strong defensively to a 21-11 first quarter lead. HK was also able to contain the Huskies’ double-headed scoring threat of Tyler Anglin and Will Thompson, who finished with a combined 24 points for Morgan.
“We started executing the type of offense we needed in that first quarter,” recalled Mackenzie. “We saw Anglin and Thompson as their main threats, so we bore down defensively on them. I thought we did a good job as a team on both players.”
The second quarter would see a changing of the guard, as HK’s hot offensive start cooled down and the Huskies outscored the home squad 15-7 in the period to only trail 28-26 at half.
The Cougars continued to look flat as the second half commenced with Morgan nailing a pair of three-pointers to give itself a four-point edge. After a timeout called by Mackenzie, HK started to regain momentum with a bucket and a defensive stop. The main turning point came when O’ Brien put the home crowd in frenzy with a steal, followed by what Mackenzie called, “one of the hardest dunks at the high school level I have ever seen.” The jam started the remainder of the game that from six minutes remaining in the third and on saw Morgan only score 12 points. HK used the charity stripe the rest of the way, hitting 6-of-8 from the line in the fourth and 10-of-12 for the game, to earn the win and the postseason berth.
“That dunk by Colin really ignited everyone in the gym, and helped us understand what we needed to do to keep that same energy going,” said Mackenzie. “It ignited us defensively the rest of the game.”
The same momentum from the win over the Huskies carried right over two nights later versus Coginchaug. While the first quarter ended with a 16-10 Cougars’ command, it also ended with O’ Brien in early foul trouble. Forced to bench O’ Brien for the second, HK was outscored 12-6 in the frame, as Coginchaug tied the score at 22 heading into the break.
Despite a third quarter that saw both team struggle from the field with HK scoring five points to Coginchaug’s four, the Cougars were able to establish themselves on defense and held the Blue Devils to multiple scoreless, one-minute long possessions.
The fourth quarter would see the undoing of Coginchaug, as O’ Brien scored 13 points alone in the final frame and HK won the quarter 16-8. The period capped off a half that saw the Cougars only allow 12 points following the dead heat after the first two periods. HK again used free throws to help seal the deal, as junior guard Kyle McCormick went three-for-four from the line in the fourth.
“In the second half, we were able to dictate the game on defense and it gave us confidence,” said Mackenzie, whose club also earned six field goals in the fourth. “We seem to get to a point where our guys figure out what they want to do offensively and learn from their mistakes. It also helps to have such a presence in Colin, whose on-ball defense is key.”