Pictured: Cromwell senior James Grodzicki rejects the shot of Valley’s Simon Partyka in the fourth quarter of their Shoreline tournament semifinal game on Thursday.
By Paul Augeri
CROMWELL – Kevin Woods likened it to a dogfight reminiscent of the ancient Big East, when foes defended to the hilt for 40 minutes, buckets were at a premium and whichever gassed team had the ball at the end was in line for a win.
That’s kind of how Thursday night’s Shoreline Conference tournament semifinal played out between Woods’ Valley Regional squad and Cromwell. Their offenses had a brutal go of it. Their defensive efforts – superb for 36 minutes – had a lot to do with that.
The Warriors won it in overtime, 38-34. Sophomore Jeremy Arnum, playing his second game after missing the previous eight with a broken wrist, hit a foul-line jumper with 1:49 remaining to tie it at 33 and Saagar Patel’s drained a go-ahead 3-pointer just 31 seconds later.
Valley ended up sealing it at the free-throw line when Arnum made shots with 1.5 ticks left.
“I think both teams played really well defensively,” Valley junior James Marsden said. “Open shots were not easy to come by. What did it in the end was just the hustle plays.”
No. 3 seed Valley moves on to the Shoreline championship game for the first time since winning the 2015 title. The Warriors will face No. 1, 14-0 Morgan on its home floor after the Huskies crushed East Hampton 74-46 in their semifinal. Saturday’s final is scheduled for 1:30 p.m.
“We probably had about 45 more seconds of energy than they did tonight,” Woods said. “That’s how even it was. That is the epitome of a dogfight. You hear about the word dogfight with 74-72. That’s not a dogfight. You get these low-grinding Big East-style games – the old Big East, not the new Big East — that’s what it’s all about.
“Defense wins championships and hopefully we can bring the same effort on Saturday.”
Cromwell coach John Pinone, who loved his team’s defensive effort throughout, shuddered at the number missed Panther layups and their 5 of 16 showing at the free-throw line.
“It was a defensive battle the whole night,” said Pinone, who’s won four Shoreline titles since 2012, the last coming two seasons ago. “I just think from our end, what came back to bite us was the free throws and the layups. You can’t shoot 5 of 16 and expect to win, and on top of that you can’t miss layups and still expect to win. You’ve still gotta score at the end of the day.”
Every player struggled with his shot. There were few open looks for anyone, and both teams especially struggled to convert second-chance points.
Cromwell senior James Grodzicki led all scorers with 13 points, but with Patel playing him straight up on the blocks and getting really good help, the big-bodied forward never had it easy.
“The difference between the first time we played Cromwell and the second time was not so much the post play but the trust,” Woods said. “Saagar did a great job of working the front and trusted that the backside help would be there. (Grodzicki) is tough, a matchup nightmare for us. We saw the trust there.”
Arnum, who scored 21 points in the Warriors’ quarterfinal win over Old Lyme, was limited to 10 points by the Panthers. Patel and Simon Partyka contributed nine points each.
Cromwell had a 27-22 lead early in the fourth quarter, but Valley caught the Panthers with a drive from Patel and a 3-pointer from James Marsden, who shook his defense with a ball fake to get a clean look. A basket by Grodzicki and two free throws by Valley reserve guard Di’Angelo Jean-Pierre — he banked in the first — produced a 29-29 tie with 1:53 left.
The Panthers had the ball for the final 50.3 seconds of regulation. When they couldn’t find a shot to their liking, Pinone called a timeout with 10.3 left. Out of it, Cromwell had two decent looks at the basket and missed both.
Grodzicki scored down low in the opening seconds of OT to put Cromwell in front 31-29, but Arnum quickly tied it at the other end. Zykarie Wilborn gave the Panthers their final lead of the night with 3:01 left. Arnum’s jumper tied it at 33, and after Valley regained possession on a tie-up, Patel came down the baseball from right to left, had room on the wing and buried his 3-pointer for a 36-33 advantage.
“My first 3 of the year,” he said. “It definitely energized us. Getting it to go, I was hyped after it, just really happy. It really put a push in me.”
“You watch him in our drills, Saagar doesn’t miss,” said Woods. “James is our best 3-pointer shooter in games, but in drills Saagar doesn’t miss. I’ve encouraged him all year to pull the trigger.”
Before the season, Cromwell was counting on the experience of Grodzicki, Wilborn, Justin Valentin, Michael Morgan, Connor Daly, Malcolm Mention and Matthew Pepe — all seniors — to challenge for the championship. They just didn’t make enough shots Thursday.
“At the end of the day we had to make more shots at the end of regulation,” Pinone said. “We were up two twice in OT … I felt like we had been in a lot of those games this year, where we got over the hump on Tuesday (in a quarterfinal win over Haddam-Killingworth), but tonight we did not make enough to get over the hump. It’s unfortunate.”
“I couldn’t be happier with the seniors,” Pinone added. “They left it out there.”
VALLEY REGIONAL (10-4)
Simon Partyka 4 0-1 9, Jeremy Arnum 3 4-5 10, James Marsden 2 0-0 6, Saagar Patel 4 0-2 9, Marcus SantaMaria 1 0-0 2, D’Angelo Jean-Pierre 0 2-2 2, Sam Hutchinson 0 0-0 0, Cameron Ruel 0 0-0 0, Keenan Pindar 0 0-0 0, Kyle Montecalvo 0 0-0 0. Totals: 14 6-10 38.
James Grodzicki 5 3-9 13, Connor Daly 1 0-0 2, Zykarie Wilborn 4 0-1 8, Justin Valentin 0 0-0 0, Michael Morgan 2 2-4 7, JJ Fehan 1 0-0 2, Malcolm Mention 1 0-0 2. Totals: 14 5-16 34.
Score By Quarters
V 9 7 6 7 9–38
C 6 9 8 6 5—34
3-Pointers: VR—Marsden 2, Patel 1, Partyka 1; C—Morgan 1.