By Marc Silvestrini
DEEP RIVER – The Morgan Huskies found enough focus and energy to turn a 25-point blowout loss to Valley Regional on the same floor exactly two weeks ago into a thrilling 70-62 overtime win in the Shoreline Conference tournament semifinals Tuesday night.
The Huskies, who were led by the all-around play of junior guard Zach Johnson and an amazing 11-point outburst in the four-minute overtime session by sophomore forward Alex Fratamico, will meet top seed Old Lyme on Thursday for the conference championship (7:30pm, Polson Middle School in Madison).
The Wildcats beat 2019 Shoreline champion Cromwell 54-34 in Tuesday’s other semifinal game in Old Lyme. Morgan (15-7) and Old Lyme (21-1) met once in the regular season, on Feb. 26, with the Wildcats prevailing 67-50.
Two weeks ago, when the third-seeded Huskies ended up on the short end of a 59-34 final, Morgan coach Frank Rossi felt No. 2 seed Valley (17-5) outmuscled, outhustled and played with much greater energy and intensity than his team.
So Rossi and his coaches worked the Huskies extra hard in practices leading up to Tuesday’s rematch.
“We stressed the fact that we needed to play at a much higher level of energy all week in practices,” he said. “We had a series of very high-energy practices, and then our kids did a good job of translating everything that we did in practice to tonight’s game.
“Our kids really played their hearts out tonight.”
Valley coach Kevin Woods said his team had a hard time getting stops on defense and that his offense settled for 3-point shots far too often, particularly during the game’s pivotal second quarter.
“We built up a decent lead in the second quarter, but then we stopped doing the things that got us that lead and started relying too heavily on the three-point shots,” Woods said. “That allowed Morgan to get right back in the game, which was one of the key factors tonight.”
Valley stretched its lead to nine points about midway through the second quarter, but could not score over the final 4:12 of the first half, enabling Morgan to chop the lead down to a single point at the half.
The teams then traded the lead through most of the third and fourth quarters and the first two minutes of overtime until Morgan outscored Valley 11-3 over the final two minutes of the overtime session to set the final margin at eight points.
Johnson led the Huskies with a game-high 28 points while Fratamico and Rob Zirlis each chipped in with 13 points.
Chris Sparaco led a quartet of Warriors in double figures with 18 points. Jake Grow scored 16, Gavin Grabowski added 15 and Cade Ensinger finished with 10.
Early buckets by Johnson and Zirlis got the Huskies off to a quick 4-0 lead over the first minute of play before a 3-point bomb by Grow gave Valley its first lead of the night at 7-6 with 5:21 left in the quarter. From there, each team scored 10 points over the balance of the quarter, which ended with Valley up 17-16.
A drive by Ensinger, a three from the top of the key by Dylan Sparaco, and two pretty baskets from underneath by Chris Sparaco helped Valley outscore the Huskies 10-2 over the first four minutes of the second quarter, stretching the Warrior lead to nine at 27-18.
But a pair of buckets by Drew Nye and a deep three by Jason Cohen enabled the Huskies to close the half on an 8-0 run that left Valley clinging to a 27-26 lead at the half.
The teams battled through four lead changes over the first five minutes of the third quarter before two inside buckets by Zirlis turned a 37-34 Valley lead late in the quarter into a 38-37 Morgan lead after three quarters of play.
Valley scored five of the first seven points in the fourth quarter to reacquire the lead at 42-40 with less than six minutes to play. The teams then battled through three more lead changes until Grow hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key to give Valley a 49-48 lead with 2:51 left on the clock. Johnson converted a drive through the lane to put Morgan back on top, but Chris Sparaco scored from underneath 14 seconds later to help the Warriors reclaim the lead at 51-50 with 2:10 left.
Ensinger then hit the front end of a one-and-one to make it 52-50 with 11 seconds left. Johnson grabbed the rebound when Ensinger missed his second free throw, dribbled up the floor, drove to the basket and scored the game-tying hoop with 2 seconds showing on the clock, setting up overtime.
Fratamico then turned the overtime session into his own personal highlight tape, scoring nine of his team’s first 11 points in the extra session to give the Huskies a 63-59 lead with 1:17 remaining.
Nye hit a layup after reeling in a pretty feed from Jon Fiorillo to stretch Morgan’s lead to 65-59, but an Ensinger free throw followed quickly by a bucket from Chris Sparaco – who scored six points in the overtime session – brought the Warriors back to within three, 65-62, with 42 seconds left.
Johnson, Cohen and Fratamico then made 5 of 6 combined free throws over the final seconds to ice the victory and send the Huskies to the Shoreline final.
“I’d been a little bit quiet throughout most of the game, so when the overtime started I felt like it was my time to help my team, my time to take over the game,” Fratamico said.
“Every time I came up the floor I saw the lane open up, so I just kept driving to the basket and taking the shot,” he added. “I guess all those hard practices the coaches put us through really paid off tonight.”
Tuesday’s game brought back bittersweet memories from the 2010-11 season for Woods. The bitter memory: losing in the final of the Shoreline tournament by one point in overtime despite entering the game as a heavy favorite against Old Lyme.
The sweet memory: That Valley team used its unexpected loss in the final as a rallying point and went on to win the CIAC Class S championship two weeks later.
“It (winning the state title) could happen,” he said. “We’ve done it before. The evidence is hanging up on that wall,” he added, pointing to the 2010-11 championship banner.
As for Rossi, he has not only led his team to the Shoreline championship game in his second year as Morgan’s coach, but Thursday night also will be a homecoming of sorts for him. He was the head coach at Daniel Hand for nine years before stepping down from the position four years ago.
Morgan 70, Valley Regional 62 (OT)
Zach Johnson 10 7-8 28, Jason Cohen 1 1-2 4, Alex Fratamico 5 3-5 13, Rob Zirlis 5 3-5 13, Connor Duffy 3 0-1 6, Drew Nye 3 0-0 6. Totals: 27 14-21 70.
Jake Grow 6 0-0 16, Gavin Grabowski 6 2-4 15, Dylan Sparaco 1 0-0 3, Chris Sparaco 9 0-0 18, Cade Ensinger 3 2-5 10, Macklin Miezejeski 0 0-2 0. Totals 25 4-11 62.
Score By Quarters
M 16 10 12 14 18—70
V 17 10 10 15 10—62
3-Pointers: M—Cohen 1, Johnson 1; VR—Grow 4, Ensinger 2, D. Sparaco 1.