Pictured: Morgan’s Alex Fratamico shoots a jumper over East Hampton defenders Drew DiStefano (11) and Jack Blakely in the first half of their Shoreline tournament semifinal in Clinton.
By Marc Silvestrini
CLINTON – With the possible exceptions of ping-pong and shuffleboard, size and strength matter in sports.
The Morgan boys basketball team has both, along with a good amount of basketball skill, and that’s why the Huskies are still undefeated and one win away from the Shoreline Conference championship following Thursday’s 74-46 semifinal win over East Hampton.
The Huskies (14-0) will host No. 3 Valley Regional on Saturday (1:30 p.m.) bidding for their first conference title since 2005. Morgan lost to Old Lyme in last year’s final.
East Hampton finished its season with an 8-6 record.
The lightning-quick but physically smaller East Hampton team gave the Huskies all they could handle into the third quarter before Morgan’s defense and superior inside game began taking its toll, allowing the Huskies to steadily pull away over the last half of the third quarter and all of the fourth.
“Our defense has been the core strength of this team all season and at halftime we told the kids that they had to do a better job of getting back to our defensive principles,” said Morgan coach Frank Rossi.
“We did a much better job of dealing with their screens and hand-offs and creating some transition-game opportunities in the second half,” he said, singling out the defensive efforts of guards Zach Johnson and Drew Nye in particular.
The Bellringers trailed by a point, 27-26, at the half and regained the lead on a drive through the lane by Ted Zhao in the opening minute of the second half before the Huskies turned the game around in dramatic fashion, scoring 16 of the next 18 points to take a 43-30 lead with two and a half minutes left in the quarter.
Morgan then stretched its lead to 18 by outscoring East Hampton 9-5 over the balance of the third period to take a commanding 52-34 lead into the fourth.
Rob Zirlis and Johnson paced Morgan’s third-quarter charge with 11 and 6 points, respectively, while Alex Fratamico chipped in with four third-quarter points, including a thunderous dunk after Johnson stole the ball in the East Hampton end of the floor and hit a streaking Fratamico, who was all alone at midcourt, far ahead of the field.
Any lingering doubts as to who was heading to the championship game were dispelled early in the fourth quarter as Fratamico scored six points and Nye added five to trigger a 16-3 Huskies run that ballooned their lead to 31, at 68-37.
“Morgan is incredible, they’re a very, very talented team and they’re very well-coached,” East Hampton coach Parker Strong said. “We tried to give them a battle but we just couldn’t play all 32 (minutes). We got sloppy in that third quarter and started making mistakes.
“And when you play someone this good, one mistake turns into big trouble real quick.”
Strong then proceeded to salute the play and leadership of his two senior guards – Grant Arcidiacono and Zhao – both on Thursday and throughout the season.
Led by Arcidiacono – who scored 11 of East Hampton’s 17 first-quarter points – the Bellringers built five-point leads on two occasions in the first quarter before Nye’s long three brought Morgan back to within a deuce at 15-13 with 30 seconds left. Arcidiacono then hit two free throws in the final seconds to set the score at 17-13 after the first eight minutes.
Max Karrenberg’s layup midway through the second quarter rebuilt East Hampton’s lead to five at 23-18, but Morgan’s Cooper Galdenzi led a 9-2 Huskies spurt over the balance of the quarter with five points and a pretty feed to Mason Smith for a layup to boost the home team into a 27-26 halftime lead.
Zirlis led a quartet of Huskies in double-figures on the night with 19 points. Fratamico and Nye had 12 apiece while Jason Cohen added 11.
East Hampton had three players in double-figures, led by Arcidiacono’s 16. Zhao added 14 and Karrenberg had 10.
“We’ve been in close games before, we’ve been down before, that’s one of the things about this team – we’ve been through a lot together and we don’t ever panic,” Zirlis said when asked if East Hampton’s strong first-half performance had elevated the level of concern in the Morgan locker room at halftime.
“It feels pretty good to know that we’re only one win away from reaching the goal we set for ourselves last year at this time,” he added.
Fratamico agreed that his team has too much of a veteran presence to panic after one mediocre half.
“We always stay optimistic,” he said. “This team is not going to fold. They (East Hampton) gave us some trouble in the first half but we made some adjustments, got things going on defense and played a lot better in the second half.”
When asked about his coach’s take on the team’s first-half performance, Fratamico shrugged.
“He wasn’t happy with us,” he said.
Fortunately for Huskies fans, the coach was all smiles about 30 minutes later.
EAST HAMPTON (8-6)
Drew DiStefano 1 0-0 3, Dan Cascio 0 0-2 0, Jack Blakely 0 1-2 1, Grant Arcidiacono 4 7-8 16, Ted Zhao 6 2-3 14, Nate Ireland 1 0-0 2, Max Karrenberg 4 0-0 10. Totals: 16 10-15 46.
Zach Johnson 3 2-2 8, Drew Nye 5 0-0 12, Jason Cohen 5 1-1 11, Alex Fratamico 6 0-0 12, Rob Zirlis 7 5-5 19, Connor Duffy 1 0-0 2, Cam Carlson 1 0-0 3, Mason Smith 1 0-0 2, Cooper Galdenzi 2 0-0 5. Totals: 31 8-8 74.
Score By Quarters
EH 17 9 8 12–46
M 13 14 25 22–74
3-Pointers: EH–Karrenberg 2, DiStefano 1, Arcidiacono 1; M–Nye 2, Galdenzi 1, Carlson 1.