SOUTHINGTON — Playing with a lead is usually the recipe for success. Not so for the Southington boys basketball team Thursday night.
The Blue Knights led from the opening tip and took a 10-point lead early in the fourth quarter only to see Berlin storm back over the final seven minutes of the game to win 56-50 in the first round of the CCC Tournament.
Southington, seeded No. 8, scored just three points in the fourth quarter and made more turnovers than baskets down the stretch in losing to the No. 9 Redcoats.
The Blue Knights led 48-38 on Jake Napoli’s free throw with 7:43 to play.
But only Ryan Gesnaldo’s basket with 1:42 left accounted for Southington’s other points in the fourth quarter, as Berlin turned up its defensive pressure and took its first lead of the game, 51-50, with 1:10 to play.
“We froze,” a blunt Southington head coach John Cessario said. “We stopped playing. We treated the ball like a grenade instead of a pillow. The ball is supposed to be something you embrace, instead of something you feel like you need to get rid of.
“Unfortunately, we could have made a few more shots that just rolled in and out. But it’s all about feeling good about the ball in your hands. No matter what our lineup was, a couple players just didn’t look comfortable.
“I can’t speak on their behalf, but from a coach’s perspective, I didn’t feel we were comfortable with the ball,” Cessario added. “We need to be big-time players in big situations. When you are nursing a nine-point lead, you should embrace the pressure, because it’s pressure they are trying to create because they are under pressure.”
Southington missed six of its seven shots in the fourth quarter after making 19 of its first 32. Jared Kelly and Colin Burdette led Southington with 11 points apiece, but neither scored in the fourth quarter.
Kelly, who made three 3-pointers through three quarters, missed both shots he took in the fourth. Burdette’s last basket came in the third quarter and gave Southington a 35-28 lead.
Both committed key turnovers in the fourth quarter as Berlin sped up the pace of play behind a pressure defense that forced six turnovers in the final seven minutes.
“We were confident (heading to the fourth quarter),” Burdette said. “They just attacked us with double teams and we got rid of the ball a little too quick. We just didn’t take care of the ball.”
The loss was Southington’s third in a row after winning eight straight. The Blue Knights will enter the CIAC Division II playoffs at 12-9. Berlin won its third straight, improved to 15-6 and will play No. 1 seed East Catholic in Saturday’s CCC quarterfinal.
East Catholic beat Platt 85-49 Thursday night in its CCC opener.
In Southington, through the first three quarters, it appeared the host team would advance.
The Blue Knights came out hot, hitting eight of their first 13 shots to take a double-digit lead by the second quarter. Southington extended its first-half lead to 28-14 and led 29-20 at halftime.
The Blue Knights led 31-20 on Jacob Flynn’s basket early in the third quarter. But Berlin sped up the pace of play in that third quarter, and despite trailing 47-38 as the horn sounded on the period, the Redcoats had grabbed the momentum behind a full-court press that led to easy transition offense.
Berlin’s senior trio of Gianni Fanelli, Holden Murphy and Ryan Hyde led the comeback in one fashion or another.
Fanelli’s defensive effort created havoc in the halfcourt, as he tipped several Southington passes at the top of Berlin’s 1-2-2 matchup zone. He and the rest of the Redcoats also hounded Southington’s ball-handers in a trapping press that sparked an 8-1 run to open the fourth quarter.
“My favorite part of the game is getting my hands on the ball and making it difficult for the offense to score,” Fanelli said. “We’ve been playing fast all season, and once we get stops on defense we’re able to come back.”
Berlin took its first lead, 51-50, on a driving layup and deep 3-pointer by Murphy with 1:10 to play. It was a lead the Redcoats never surrendered as the Blue Knights missed their final three shots from the field, turned the ball over and missed the front end of a 1-and-1.
Murphy led all players with 18 points, 14 after halftime. Fanelli had 17 points, while Hyde scored 10 of his 11 after halftime.
“They are very hard to come back on,” Berlin head coach Mike Veneziano said. “Obviously, in the second half, we wanted to pick up the tempo. But they are so disciplined, it’s hard.
“We went man-to-man (in the fourth), which isn’t our strongest defense. To get back in the game, we had to pick up the tempo.”
The Redcoats got within a basket on Hyde’s driving layup with three minutes to play.
Kelly then missed runner and, after Hyde was fouled only to miss two free throws, Gesnaldo’s runner at the 1:42 mark gave a reeling Southington a 50-46 lead.
But Murphy’s baskets completed Berlin’s comeback.
“We got off to a slow start and we knew we had to play at our pace,” Murphy said. “Playing fast is something we’ve done all season, so that helped us out.”
Southington, meanwhile, wanted to keep the game in the 50s, which it did. But how the Blue Knights finished wasn’t what Cessario had in mind.
“There is a clock-management (aspect), but we still need to look to score,” Cessario said. “Just in certain situations when we should have been aggressive, we were a little too tentative.
“We always look to score,” Cessario added. “It wasn’t like we were trying to hold the ball for six minutes. We just needed to score when the opportunities presented themselves.”
Southington built its lead by doing exactly what Cessario preaches: looking for the best shot available. The Blue Knights led 11-2 and 18-6 in the first quarter by working the ball to open shooters.
Kelly had eight points in the first quarter and made two of three 3’s he took in first quarter. Billy Wadolowski scored four of his nine points in the second quarter and his second 3-pointer of the game thwarted Berlin’s first comeback bid and gave Southington a 45-35 lead as the final minute of the third quarter.