Pictured: Donte Pope drives the lane and scored a second-quarter basket for the Blue Dragons in Tuesday’s CCC South encounter with Maloney.
By Paul Augeri
MIDDLETOWN – Jonathan Nkonoki got right to the point in the postgame.
“Defense is the most important thing in basketball,” the high-flying, high-scoring Middletown High guard said. “Defense wins championships and that’s what we’re trying to do. Defense is all that coach warns us about.”
With 11 days between games, Middletown coach Rick Privott and the Blue Dragons drilled down on the defensive side of their game, and their attention to detail showed in Tuesday night’s 66-36 win over CCC South rival Maloney at LaBella-Sullivan Gymnasium.
Leading by just three after the first eight minutes, Middletown shut down the visitors in the middle quarters, outscoring the Spartans 44-19 to put this one away with a lot of time still to play.
Middletown reached the quarter-pole of its regular season with a third straight victory. If not for a five-point loss to then-No. 1 Windsor four days before Christmas, the Blue Dragons would be 5-0 and soaking in statewide attention.
Still, they are 4-1 (and receiving votes in the GameTimeCT Top 10) and feeling good about the state of their game after pulling away from a Maloney team (4-3) that also counts Northwest Catholic (4-1) and Fitch (6-0) among its three losses.
“In practice we’ve been working hard like it’s a game. Every practice we’re working hard, pushing each other,” said senior forward Donte Pope, who finished with 12 points and 9 rebounds. “We were ready for this game. That’s where our motivation was.”
Nkonoki led all scorers with 17 points. The southpaw, who penetrates as well as he shoots it, threw down a dunk in the fourth quarter for good measure, sending the Blue Dragons’ bench and home crowed into a tizzy.
“We have been working hard every single day in practice,” Nkonoki said. “Coach has been telling us to do the little things and keep working hard. I think we were ready today to come out against Maloney with everything we had.”
Sophomore center Elijah Wilborn added 12 points and grabbed 12 boards, while sophomore point guard Matt Steuerwald scored 9 points, all on 3-pointers.
Steuerwald, making his first start of the season in place of ailing senior Kenny Fountain, also shut down Maloney point guard Vincent Martinez, who finished with 5 points.
“Matt played great,” Nkonoki said. “He shot the ball well, moved the ball, ran the point well. He did really good for us. It was just what we needed.”
Middletown needed time to get its shots to drop. The first sign that they were going to be OK was when Steuerwald hit the first of his three 3-pointers with 35 seconds left in the opening quarter to give the Dragons an 11-8 lead after one.
In the second quarter, after Garrison Kunst (team-high 12 points) made a turnaround jumper with 5:52 left to boost Maloney within two points of the lead, the Spartans began to wilt against Middletown’s man-to-man pressure.
Nkonoki nailed a 3-pointer, but Maloney’s Jeremaiah Williams scored quickly at the other end to cut his team’s deficit to 19-16. From there, the Spartans produced only two points over the remaining 5:33 of the half, with the Dragons scoring 13 for a 32-18 halftime lead.
For the second game in a row, Middletown delivered a knockout blow in the third quarter — at both ends.
Steuerwald got it started with a 3-pointer from the wing in the first 23 seconds, which led to Maloney calling a timeout. Here’s what came next:
Pope putting back a miss by Nkonoki.
Nkonoki drilling a 3-pointer from the wing.
After Maloney missed on its end, Pope scored on the fast break from an assist by Steurewald. Pope was fouled, but missed the free throw.
At the other end, Wilborn stole the ball near half-court, could not convert the dunk attempt, was fouled and swished both free throws.
By the time Maloney’s Kamron Moreno scored on a drive to the basket with 4:24 left in the quarter, Middletown had a 26-point lead and Privott began to throw quality minutes at his bench.
Privott said his team’s performance all came down to execution.
“They were eager to play,” he said. “I thought there weas a little rust in the first quarter, but they got going.”
“It’s all on the defensive end,” he added, referring to the Dragons holding the Spartans to 19 points in the second and third quarters combined. “Even the younger guys, I told them, defense is all effort. When we put those guys in, it was ‘play defense. I don’t care what happens on the offensive end. Play defense.’ And they did. And I thought they did a good job of closing it out.”
Pope said he liked the level of effort from each of his teammates, knowing they were itching to play in game conditions after the usually long layoff to start the new year.
“The effort was there, and that’s what we need every game,” he said. “Everybody came to play. The bench, everybody contributed.”
Middletown 66, Maloney 36
Jeremaiah Williams 3 1 9, Rashawn Wilson 3 0 6, Vincent Martinez 2 1 5, Garrison Kunst 4 2 12, Ethan Hicks 0 0 0, Kamron Moreno 1 0 2, Sergio Muniz 1 0 2, Jevonny DeLeon 0 0 0, Cam Luce 0 0 0, Owen Papciak 0 0 0. Totals: 14 4-10 36.
Matt Steuerwald 3 0 9, Jonathan Nkonoki 7 1 17, Erin Strong 1 0 2, Donte Pope 5 2 12, Elijah Wilborn 4 2 10, Richard Rivers 1 0 2, Dariyon Drake 0 0 0, Mekhi Toler 3 0 7, Tim Vaughters 0 2 2, Roy McKeithan 1 0 3, Cordell Williams 0 0 0, Nahtayvion Durazzo 0 0 0, Noz McDaniel 1 0 2. Totals: 26 7-17 66.
Score By Quarters
Ma 8 10 9 9—36
Mi 11 21 23 11—66
3-Pointers: Ma—Williams 2, Kunst 2; Mi—Steuerwald 3, Nkonoki 2, Toler 1, McKeithan 1.
Records: Malone 4-3, Middletown 4-1.
- Middletown at Plainville, Monday, 6:45pm