Raiders storm back from 15-down, move on to NVL semi's. Face Crosby on Monday night.
WATERBURY, WILBY HIGH SCHOOL: It was the mountain this group of Torrington basketball players had not been able to climb during their careers on the hardwood as Raiders.
Despite quality regular seasons that led them to the top of Iron Division each of the last three years, they had never found their collective footing when it came to scaling the summit of the Quarterfinal game of the Naugatuck Valley League Tournament.
After 17-minutes of action that saw them trail Wolcott by 15, it didn’t look as if Saturday was going to be the day either.
Until it was.
A masterful defensive effort that saw them outwork, outhustle and out harass the Eagles over a seven-minute span in the third quarter brought the Raiders all the way back and a tear-drop jumper by senior Dontae Thomas with 20.9 seconds left led to an eventual 58-56 win in the game they wanted ever so badly.
“It’s huge (getting out of the quarters),” head coach Eric Gamari said. “This has been the monkey on our back with this group. I told the seniors before the game that this was their third trip to the NVL quarterfinals, and we haven’t advanced.”
The unlikely comeback started after the Eagles had scored the first five points of the third quarter to go up 41-26 on the strength of an endless barrage of three-points.
How many you ask? Try six in the first quarter for all 18 of their points in the frame and ten for the half. The Eagles totaled 21 baskets for the game, 13 of them from beyond the long line, some very much of the down-town variety.
Elmin Redzepagic, a thorn in the Raiders sides all three meetings this year (two now won by Torrington) had 16-first half points and four of his five threes at the break and something had to change, and it came in the form of a coach’s request.
“I challenged Joel (Villanueva) to shut down Elmin (Redzepagic),” Gamari said. “Joel did a heck of a job guarding him down the stretch.”
The high-flying senior would score just seven in the second half, just two in the critical third quarter when the Raiders applied a full court press that didn’t allow the Eagles to set up three opportunities in their half court set.
Torrington senior Tyreek Davis, who sat the last two plus minutes of the first quarter and the entire second quarter with two fouls, fueled his team on both ends of the floor with intense pressure defense and 11 points in the frame as Torrington outscored Wolcott by a 20-5 mark after falling behind by 15.
“Ty was in foul trouble last time against them,” Gamari said. “I rolled the dice and it burned us so this time I waited while Brian (Ballesterus) came in and gave us good minutes until I rolled him back out there and he got going again.”
Davis (team high 16) picked up his third foul late in the third and his fourth in the final frame, but he had to stay on the floor, he makes everything about the Raiders game complete.
Fellow senior Joel Villanueva (14 points), added seven points in the key third quarter as the up-tempo game that has made the Raiders so successful during their 15-5 regular season.
His free-throw late in the third knotted things at 46 entering the fourth.
Redzepagic got free for a long three pointer as the quarter began, putting Wolcott back up 49-46 but Villanueva answered with a trey of his own before Thomas hit a key three for a 52-49 Torrington lead.
A Christopher Harris two pointer got the Eagles within one and a Jack Drewry three gave Wolcott the lead back again at 54-52 with two minutes to go in the back and forth final quarter.
With the Raiders running some time off the clock, looking for a perfect shot, Davis launched a long, NBA length three pointer that found the bottom of the net for a 55-54 lead but Redzepagic drove for two to put his team up 56-55 with just under a minute to play.
Enter Thomas once again.
When his team has needed him, the senior guard has usually been up to the task this season and his patented tear-drop floater from inside the foul line was true one more time on Saturday to put his team up for good at 57-56 with 20.9 to play.
Wolcott certainly had plenty of time but missed on a three ball and who else, but Thomas came away with the rebound and was fouled with 8.6 seconds to go and a one-point lead.
He would make the first shot on his one and one opportunity but miss the second. Davis would come away with the offensive rebound though and the Raiders had moved on to play in that elusive second game of the NVL Tournament Monday night against the Bulldogs.
Crosby beat Naugatuck by a 90-74 final in the second game of the day at Wilby High School.
The Bulldogs beat the Raiders in the teams only meeting this season, a 77-72 decision in Torrington early in the season.
Chalk it up to another hurdle cleared for a team that has shown they can do so in a campaign that saw them accomplish much, none bigger than this one to date though.
“We’ve checked a lot of boxes,” Gamari said, “But we hadn’t checked this one.”
Naugatuck Valley League Tournament Quarterfinals
Torrington 58, Wolcott 56
Wolcott 18 18 10 10 56
Torrington 13 13 20 12 58
Wolcott (56): Elmin Redzepagic 9-0-23, Christopher Harris 4-1-13, Brian Perzhilla 2-0-5, jack Drewry 4-0-10, Dane Hassan 1-0-3, Jeffrey Nicol 1-0-3, Totals: 21-1-56
Torrington (58): Dontae Thomas 4-1-11, Tyreek Davis 7-0-16, Joel Villanueva 3-5-14, CJ Root 2-0-6, Kevin Dixon 1-3-5, TJ Calabrese 1-0-2, Brian Ballesterus 2-0-4, Totals: 20-9-68
3-pointers: W (13): Redzepagic 5, Harris 3, Perzhilla, Drewry 2, Hassan, Nicol. T (9): Thomas 2, Davis 2, Villanueva 3, Root 2