CHESHIRE — Two teams headed to the postseason played tournament-worthy basketball Friday night.
Cheshire came out on top, ending Southington’s eight-game winning streak 49-40 in a non-league matchup played in a packed gym on Senior Night amid playoff atmosphere. It was the Rams’ eighth win in nine outings, their only loss coming in overtime at Hillhouse.
Cheshire (12-7) had won seven straight games before falling earlier this week at Hillhouse. Southington is also 12-7 after its first loss since Jan. 7. Both teams are ranked among the top 12 Division II teams.
“We came in hungry to get back on a winning streak,” said Cheshire junior guard Colby Griffin, who led all scorers with a career-high 21 points. “We showed why we are one of the best teams in the state.
“It’s was a special atmosphere out there,” Griffin added. “We have great fans.
“It was a great learning experience. It will prepare us for big games and those one-and-done games in the tournament.”
Aidan Godfrey scored all 12 of his points for Cheshire after halftime as the Rams opened up a 10-point lead midway through the fourth quarter only to see Southington rally to within 44-40 with 56 seconds to play.
But the Rams made four of six free throws down the stretch to hold off the Blue Knights, who missed their final five shots of the game.
“I think we played tight offensively,” Southington head coach John Cessario said. “But their defense contributed to that.
“None of us shot the ball well and it comes down to we’ve had guys who hit shots when we needed them. Tonight wasn’t that night. But we didn’t play as loose as we should have.”
“I have a lot of respect for John (Cessario). I don’t think we fought through more screens this season than we did tonight,” Cheshire head coach Dan Lee said. “Tonight is a momentum thing, and it’s a case of believing. Those kids believe they can compete every time they walk into a gym.
“Tonight presented a tournament atmosphere. I can try to replicate this in practice, but I can’t invite 600 of my closest friends. While the majority of the fans are rooting for us, it’s still loud. And this rivalry is born out of respect. And it was a well-played game.”
Colin Burdette led Southington with 13 points, but missed his final four shots in the game’s final minute — three from behind the 3-point arc when the Blue Knight needed a basket the most. Adam Hunter and Jake Napoli each had six points for the Blue Knights.
Cheshire led 38-28 on Griffin’s reverse layup with 4:11 to play.
When Griffin missed next time down the court, Godfrey was there to clean things up under the basket. Godfrey’s offensive rebound and putback kept Cheshire up by 10 with 3:20 to play. His turnaround jumper in the paint gave the Rams a 44-35 lead with 2:04 to play.
Southington wouldn’t go away, but missed three straight 3’s on a single possession with 1:25 to play. Ryan Gesnaldo then missed from behind the arc with 1:18 to play.
Jacob Flynn’s 3-pointer with 56 seconds to play got the Blue Knights within 44-40, but that’s the closest Southington got.
“I played well, but a lot of that has to do with my teammates,” Griffin said. “We all set each other up. We play really well together. We have great team chemistry.”
Griffin had no offensive struggles. The junior guard scored 11 second-half points. His two 3’s in the second quarter was a sign of things to come.
Griffin made all three shots he took in the second quarter and each of his 3’s gave the Rams leads. His second from the top of the key put Cheshire up 14-13 and his driving layup put the Rams up 18-15 at halftime.
“Giving up 18 points in the first half, you have to be happy with that,” Cessario said. “But they made their free throws late and we just missed a bunch of shots late.”
Griffin combined with Godfrey to score half of the Rams’ 10 third-quarter points. With the 6-foot-4 Godfrey drawing two, and at times three, Southington defenders, the junior was content to kick the ball out to Griffin and other wide-open Rams for uncontested shots.
Griffin also translated defense into offense. And in a game played at Southington’s pace, Cheshire ultimately beat Southington at its own game.
Neither team led by more than three points in a low-scoring first half. Southington’s methodical offense produced just eight points in the third quarter, four coming in the second half’s opening 90 seconds when Burdette hit a jumper and layup off a Cheshire turnover.
But Southington went the next five minutes without scoring, as the Rams opened up a 24-19 lead with 1:44 to play in the third.
Southington’s cold shooting came mostly from behind the 3-point arc. After making its first three 3’s, the Blue Knights missed 11 of their next 13 from behind the arc. Leading scorer Jared Kelly (5 points) was all but taken out of the game in the second half, failing to score after halftime before fouling out.
Cheshire, meanwhile, used the size of Godfrey to open up its outside shooters. Content to kick the ball outside when double teams, Godfrey not only found Griffin open, but also Ian Battipaglia and Colby Hayes, who each hit 3-pointers.
“Basically it’s a team game, I don’t really care how many points, rebounds or steals I have,” said Godfrey, who had four blocks and altered several inside shots. “I just want to impact the team winning the game. Even though I was scoreless in that first half, I was getting the ball and facilitating things. I felt the offense flowed even though I didn’t score.”
The Rams hit their first of three 3’s in the first half in a game played at Southington’s pace.
The Blue Knights led 8-5 after the first quarter on Kelly’s 3-pointer. The Rams, however, keyed on Kelly, who leads Southington in scoring and had 24 and 20 points in two Southington wins last week.
Kelly didn’t get a shot off until hitting his 3-pointer with a minute to play in the first quarter. And after his driving layup with 3:21 to play in the first half gave Southington a 13-11 lead, he missed his only other shot from the field — a 3-pointer from the top of the key.
Southington’s Burdette made his first shot of the game — a 3-pointer — but missed all three shots he took in the second quarter.