As a program that could barely earn wins just a few short seasons ago, the mere thought of winning not one, but two, state titles was but a dream for the Valley Regional boys' basketball team, but on the night of March 15 on the big stage and under the bright lights of Mohegan Sun Arena, that dream became a reality for the second time for the six seniors on the squad. After taking the Shoreline Conference title for the first time in 29 years just two weeks ago, the Warriors set their eyes on the big prize: claiming the Class M crown after taking Class S just two years ago and Valley ultimately won that prize, beating Weston 52-45 to earn its second state title in three years.
"You know what, I'm just so happy for those six seniors and obviously for the whole team, but they've put in so much work in the offseason and they put so much work in since they were growing up—since 4th grade this has been their dream," said Coach Kevin Woods. "Obviously they got to experience that as sophomores, but I think it's a little more special to them as seniors because they're all part of that, but to see those six guys get to celebrate at the end after the season they've had is quite the accomplishment for us."
The first half of the game belonged undoubtedly to the Trojans, who despite being the 23rd seed, proved they belonged in the final after beating both the second and sixth seeds in the quarterfinal and semifinal, respectively. No. 5-seeded Valley had some trouble getting shots in the basket early on and committed a number of fouls in just the first half alone, falling behind Weston, but rebounded nicely in the second to get back on track and take the lead behind senior forwards Chris Polo and Chris Connor's 12 points apiece, with Polo also having a huge night on the boards with a game-high 15 rebounds.
"It's incredible. We knew we had the better record, but we knew they were playing really hot right now and they had so much momentum coming into this game, but we fought hard," said Connor. "Being down three [at the half] we knew it was a long game and that we still had a lot more to play and we just dug in on defense and it got us going. I think our defensive stops is what got us going in the second half—we had one 9-0 run where we got going and then from there we knew we just had to keep it going. They got it close, but we hit some key free throws at the end that kept us ahead."
From the start of the clock, the Warriors' job was to not only win, but hold Weston's Charlie DiPasquale (24 points) at bay, which they were unable to do in the first half as he scored 15 of those points. Grant Limone scored two to get Weston on the board first and the Trojans started to give Valley trouble, forcing a turnover under the Warriors' net and rushing their shots, causing many uncharacteristic missed attempts. Valley got on the board when Connor blocked a shot under Weston's net and passed down court, where two Warriors were unable to get the ball in the basket, but it was senior guard Mason King who took the ball outside the arc and shot a three. DiPasquale answered with a three for the Trojans and Valley earned a free-throw point before Weston notched two more and Connor responded with a three to tie the score at 6. DiPasquale notched another five points in the remaining minutes of the first quarter, and before Valley turned over the ball to end the first, sophomore guard Chris Jean-Pierre (10 points) scored a free-throw point to put the score at 11-7 going into the second.
The Warriors started off the second like the first and suffered another turnover before Limone and DiPasquale scored four for Weston. Connor answered with two, leading up to Polo showcasing his stifling defense when he blocked a Trojan shot and allowed Jean-Pierre to notch two threes in a row, bringing the score to 15-15. Connor forced a Weston turnover and passed to Jean-Pierre who passed to senior guard Jonathan Luster (6 points, 8 rebounds) under the basket for two points. DiPasquale then notched three free-throw points and a basket to end the half with the Trojans leading 20-17.
"That was our top key to victory for tonight was to play Valley basketball," said Woods. "The first half I think Weston definitely won the battle in terms of tempo. We were forced to play at their pace and we just didn't play well on offense. Our defense was pretty good in the first half; we just were just really kind of lethargic on offense and we weren't moving the ball. Weston did a good job mixing up their defense. All I thought about was the way our guys have been playing the past 21 games and that we'll find a way to win. I know Weston has been playing great and they've had a great run, but we've quietly been having a good run of our own. We knew that we were the experienced team—they have one senior, but we have six great seniors—and we knew if it got close, we were going to put it in the hands of those seniors and they all played great tonight."
Valley came back onto the court in the third with renewed energy, dominating from the get-go. Connor led off with two, and despite a turnover and Weston's Asher Lee-Tyson scoring a three, Connor responded with a three of his own. Limone scored four points back-to-back, but senior guard Sean Cunningham (9 points) showcased a backhanded layup to notch two, followed by Polo's two. Ethan Lee-Tyson scored two, but the Warriors took over after that, with Polo shooting for two and Jean-Pierre hitting his third three of the night to give Valley its first lead of the game, 31-29.
"I was just feeling it tonight," said Jean-Pierre. "When you shoot, and the first one you make, you just have to keep shooting. It feels great; I wouldn't be with any other group but with these guys. We all work hard every day, in practice we try to get better every day, and it finally paid off."
With the Warrior fans in their glory with their team coming alive, Connor and Cunningham combined for some solid defense under the Trojans' net to force a turnover that allowed Luster to score a two-point layup and Cunningham to end the quarter with a three, putting Valley up 36-29 and sending Woods out to greet his team on the court with applause.
With so much at stake in the fourth quarter, Weston would not be intimidated and made this game a true nail-biter. Asher Lee-Tyson opened the fourth with a three and the Trojans' defense forced another Valley turnover before Polo retrieved the ball and scored a three from the arc—only his second three of the season.
"I challenged [Chris Polo]. I got on him at halftime and challenged him to play a great second half and boy did he ever play a great second half," said Woods. "He got on the boards, he had a huge three for us, he passed the ball incredibly well, and he got to the line—that was huge. It seemed like every time Weston got a big shot, Polo answered in some way."
Cunningham then got a steal and took the ball down court himself, scoring a two-point layup to put the score at 41-32—the biggest lead of the game. Weston forced another Warrior turnover, allowing Asher Lee-Tyson to score yet another three-pointer, and despite DiPasquale dominating on offense—scoring 10 points the remainder of the game—the Warriors saw points from Connor (2) and Polo (4) before arguably the Warriors' best defender, King, fouled out of the game with 2:20 left on the clock. Polo missed his next two free-throw attempts, but Cunningham grabbed two points and with 18 seconds left, Luster, as calm and collected as ever, made both his free throws to put the score at 51-45, with Polo adding a point from the charity stripe to cushion Valley's lead as the clock wound down to the Warriors' 52-45 state title victory.
"I think we rise to the occasion in big games, especially at the Sun. There's a little something special here," said Woods. "Being down three going into the half against a team that on paper we were heavily favored against, some teams would've felt that pressure. But just hanging in there and believing that this game will turn; knowing that we have to show a sense of urgency and we have to execute a little better on offense. Jonathan Luster and the way he plays at the end of the games: controlling the situation, not forcing bad shots, making good decisions; Polo being able to turn it around after playing probably one of the worst halves he played in his life to playing probably one of the best halves he's played in his life—mentally, that's tough for these young guys. Little things like that. It's just so fun to watch these guys play and I'm going to miss watching them so much."
Added Luster: "It's another great feeling and it's the way we hoped to end this season. It's a dream come true for us."