Pictured: H-K’s Mason Gorham (32) led four Cougars in double figures Thursday with 18 points. Coginchaug’s A.J. DeFilio (22) scored a game-high 23.

By Marc Silvestrini

HIGGANUM — With 11 seconds left in a game that had more twists and turns than an Olympic giant slalom course, Haddam-Killingworth senior Alec Erskine stood at the foul line for a one-and-one with his team nursing a 59-57 lead.

Swish and swish – as the Cougars held off a gritty Coginchaug team to earn a hard-fought 61-57 Shoreline Conference win on Thursday night.

The Cougars’ comeback win – H-K trailed 48-43 entering the final quarter – evened their record at 4-4, while the tough loss drops Coginchaug to 1-6.

“I was really nervous,” Erskine admitted in recalling the moment he stood at the foul line with a chance to ice the game. “But you have to trust yourself in a situation like that, you have to have the confidence that you can get the job done.

“Confidence is really the most important thing. Once the first one went in, I knew I’d make the second one.”

Coginchaug, which trailed by 13 after the opening quarter of play, staged a furious second-quarter comeback that might well have shattered just about anyone’s confidence. Triggered by senior center Tyler Garretson’s 11-point explosion, the Blue Devils outscored their hosts 24-9 in the quarter to turn the 13-point deficit into a 31-29 halftime lead.

H-K’s Tony Giambanis splits the Coginchaug defense for a layup in Thursday’s Shoreline game in Higganum.

The revived Devils then came out and outscored H-K 17-9 over the first seven minutes of the third quarter behind the razor-sharp shooting of A.J. DeFilio to expand their lead to 10 at 48-38 with a minute to play in the quarter. DeFilio, a senior guard, scored 13 of Coginchaug’s 17 points during the run, including a 3-for-3 performance from 3-point territory.

“My teammates are just great, they really got behind me… they’re all very unselfish,” DeFilio said. “I wasn’t shooting well at first tonight, but they all kept encouraging me and cheering me on. They kept telling me to just keep shooting.”

But despite DeFilio’s mighty effort, the slalom course that was Thursday’s game tested the teams with yet another unexpected turn, and fortunes changed again over the final 47 seconds of the quarter.

Chase O’Linn helped the Cougars turn the tide by nailing a 3-point bomb from the left of the key and Callen Powers followed with a 20-foot jumper as time ran out in the quarter to enable the Cougars to score five straight to cut the Blue Devil lead in half at 48-43 entering the final eight minutes of play.

H-K then outscored the Blue Devils 10-3 over the first four minutes of the final quarter to take its first lead of the second half at 53-51. DeFilio quickly countered with a turn-around jumper, but an Erskine free throw, a pretty 10-footer off a drive through the lane by Mason Gorham and a clutch three-point play off a steel and drive to the hoop by O’Linn allowed the Cougars to score six in a row and take a 59-53 lead with 1:08 to play.

But Coginchaug continued to fight.

A put-back from underneath by Terrence Murphy and Garretson’s 12-foot jumper from the corner brought the Devils back to within a bucket at 59-57, setting up Erskine’s late-game heroics at the free throw line.

DeFilio led all scorers on the night with 23 points while Garretson tossed in 16 for the Blue Devils. Gorham led a quartet of Cougars in double figures with 18 points, while Erskine chipped in with 13 and O’Linn and Powers had 11 apiece.

“I thought there were two key factors in the game,” H-K coach Jim Abbott said.

The first, he said: baskets scored by O’Linn and Powers late in the third quarter that cut Coginchaug’s lead from 10 to five. The second: H-K’s ability to withstand the all-out defensive pressure Coginchaug deployed late in the game without turning the ball over, in tandem with the key free throws the Cougars hit late in the game.

“They were in a full-out press late in the fourth quarter and we didn’t turn the ball over. That was really important,” Abbott said. “And then we hit some big free throws late in the game. Those are the kind of things you have to do to win close games.”

Coginchaug’s Todd Salva, now in his 30th season as the Blue Devils’ coach, said he was disappointed in the final outcome, but not in the way his team had played.

“I’m very pleased with the progress this team is making,” he said. “These guys don’t quit, they don’t complain, they don’t get down on each other and start pointing fingers. They just keep working hard to improve, and we are getting better.

“Our goal all along has been to be playing our best basketball late in the season, just as the tournament comes around. And I think our guys are excited because they know we’re getting there.”

H-K will seek to climb above the .500 mark when it hosts Westbrook on Monday. Coginchaug will host Old Lyme on Saturday.

Jayson Penney 2 0 6, Jake Dykas 1 1 4, A.J. DeFilio 9 0 23, Tyler Garretson 6 3 16, Terence Murphy 4 0 8,
Ryan Grant 0 0 0. Totals: 22 4 57.

Chase O’Linn 3 4 11, Alec Erskine 5 3 13, Mason Gorham 8 1 18, Tony Giambanis 2 2 8, Ronnie Scarpa 0 0 0, Callen Powers 5 0 11, Kevin Harrison 0 0 0. Totals: 23 10 61.

Score By Quarters
C 7 24 17 9–57
HK 20 9 14 18–61

3-Pointers: C—DeFilio 5, Penney 2, Dykas 1, Garretson 1; H-K—Giambanis 2, O’Linn 1, Gorham 1, Powers

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