As the first full week of 2013 games began for the Haddam-Killingworth boys' basketball squad, the message was clear: The time is now to break off a strong run of consecutive wins to both Shoreline Conference and state tournament play. The first phase of that mission began with a team facing a similar scenario to the Cougars'.
After a 3-1 start to the campaign, Head Coach Ryan Mackenzie's squad dropped two straight contests to even its mark at 3-3 before a week at home, beginning with Coginchaug on Jan. 7. HK was facing a Blue Devils' team equally eager to win as it fell to the same record with a loss following two straight wins themselves. In a matchup of two Shoreline squads needing wins to get their seasons going, HK came away with a 56-43 victory thanks in large part to 27 points from senior center Colin O' Brien.
"This win was definitely important for us and it was a building block," said O' Brien. "I just tried to use the framework of our offense tonight. I wanted to be in a position where I could help the team. We need to stay focused and identify what the other team wants to do."
O' Brien crashed through for 12 boards and four blocks, as well. Right behind him was sophomore guard Luke Ford, who had seven points with eight assists, and junior point guard Kyle McCormick also added seven for the victorious Cougars.
"I told them that they needed to see they can be that kind of team, a team that can be successful. We lost sight of that with the loss to Valley on Jan. 5," said the first-year head coach. "Tonight was a good opportunity to execute offensively and play our defense. Two things we keep preaching are to dictate the game on defense, then executing offensively. We did a nice job of that tonight."
In the opening minutes, the HK defense put the pressure on early, forcing misfires by the Blue Devils (3-4) and turnovers until Jack Granger made a layup in the paint to make it 3-2. O' Brien then fought inside to increase the HK (4-3) lead to 5-2 halfway through the first. Devin Rodrique earned two on an offensive rebound for the visitors, yet O' Brien answered back with another bucket after a steal by senior guard Nick Landell as the visitors asked for a timeout. O' Brien tipped another one in to bring the edge to eight in the final 90 seconds. Sophomore guard Hunter Czaja kept the heat on the Blue Devils with a long two-pointer as the lead was 14-4 into the final minute of the first and HK led 15-4 after the first eight minutes of play following a 10-point run.
O' Brien kept the Blue Devils scuffling with a jumper in the lane to put HK up 13. With the score 21-5, O' Brien again found a prize inside with a bucket. The visitors rallied late in the half as Rodrique hit a three before Joshua Smith made a layup inside to cut it to a 15-point HK command and then added a Blue Devils' three to make it 25-13 with a minute remaining. Coginchaug then answered with another one beyond the arc to make it a 10-point difference. Junior forward Torren Callendar (6 points) hit two from the line with 20 ticks left as HK went to the locker room up 28-18 after a Coginchaug teardrop shot as time expired.
"At half, we talked about getting back to the defense we played in the first," said Mackenzie on the Cougars allowing 14 points in the second quarter following giving up only four in the first. "The defense was what changed us in the second. When we run our sets, we are hard to stop. We got Colin the ball and reestablished that defensive presence. Our mantra has been letting our defense move the game. This was a big confidence booster for the guys tonight."
The Blue Devils' Jackson Doyle hit a deep two to start the second half and make it an eight-point game. Coginchaug brought it to seven before both clubs traded buckets with less than five minutes to go. Senior guard Dan Day (6 points) woke up the Cougars with a three out of a timeout, which was followed by an O' Brien bucket to keep a 10-point lead. HK kept the ball in its court thanks to a couple Coginchaug defensive fouls as O' Brien took another bucket inside to make it 38-26 with 2:46 remaining in the frame. Callendar earned a bucket with under a minute to make it 41-26 before James Peters hit a three-pointer to make it 41-29 heading into the final eight minutes.
O' Brien got the fourth started with a mid-range jumper and added to the late lead with two foul shots to bring the score to 44-29. Ford forced a turnover and then added a layup to keep the points pumping. With a 48-33 lead and less than four minutes to play, McCormick nailed two charity shots to earn a 17-point edge. Coginchaug would answer with a pair of its own, but HK kept producing points to take the game and its fourth triumph on the campaign.
"We came in more focused after the Valley loss and got back to what we did in the beginning of the season with rebounding and making plays," said Ford. "Coach emphasizes that when you have a team down, you have to step on its throat and knock it out quick. We bounced back with runs of our own in the second to counteract their run."
On Jan. 10, the Cougars suffered a tough 59-57 loss to East Hampton at home and moved back to the .500 mark at 4-4.