Pictured: Shadae Bushay (right) led Middletown with 19 points in Friday’s home win over Manchester. Bushay is averaging 17.5 points per game in the team’s 2-0 start. (Photo by Paul Augeri)

By Paul Augeri

MIDDLETOWN – Almost as quickly as the Middletown girls basketball team built a 14-point lead against Manchester, the Blue Dragons lost most of it in the third quarter. The Red Hawks buried four 3-point shots, the last of which trimmed their deficit to six at 39-33 with less than a minute left in the quarter.

“They took it to us for about six minutes and it got a little hairy for a second,” Middletown coach Rob Smernoff said.

But as quickly as Manchester startled Middletown with its surge, the Dragons hit back with two buckets in the final 30 seconds to push their lead back to 10. From there, their defense set up a game-breaking 12-4 run that carried them to a 60-46 CCC victory Friday night at LaBella-Sullivan Gymnasium.

“They took it to us there for about six minutes in the third quarter,” Smernoff said after Middletown won its second straight to start the season, “but we showed our experience. This team just doesn’t panic. We have a lot of experienced players who have been through a lot of wars. And you saw today that once things got tight, they kind of turned the screws in them and they decided ‘let’s play great defense.”

Middletown’s top offensive players, senior guard Shadae Bushay and senior forward Tyah Pettaway, were at the heart of the takedown and again scored in double figures. Bushay led the team with 19 points, 10 rebounds and 5 steals and Pettaway scored 11 of her 15 points in the second half.

But it was the team’s collective effort and execution on defense that set Middletown on a winning path, especially in the second half.

“They know when we play great defense, it turns into offense,” said Smernoff, “because we can run the break and we can transition. We just have to stop (the opponent) first.”

Bushay said she didn’t think Middletown plays its best basketball from start to finish, but “when we communicate, we play great. When we work together, we’re just really good. As long as we stick together and everyone has their head up, we should be good.”

Tyah Pettaway pulls up for a jump shot in the fourth quarter of Middletown’s win over Manchester. The Red Hawks’ Madison Boilard (5) defends. (Photo by Paul Augeri)

Tiara Tyson led Manchester, which fell to 0-2, with 22 points and Madison Boilard finished with 14.

Middletown was ahead 15-5 after the first quarter and its lead ballooned to 16 when Jada Bryant scored inside from the baseline to make it 23-7 midway through the second.

After Elise Ryan swished a 3-point to cut Manchester’s deficit to eight (23-15), the Blue Dragons ended the half on a 6-0 run. Alexa DeSena made two free throws and Bryant hit one of two from the line before Pettaway fed Bushay on the break with the clock winding down, and Bushay buried a 3 with 1.2 seconds left for a 29-15 halftime advantage.

Smernoff and his staff in the first half had challenged the players in the first half to find a higher gear, especially on the offensive end, and they would plead with them again when Manchester rallied in the third quarter.

“I think the coaches fired us up at halftime,” Pettaway said. “I think we all just came together and decided to play better together.”

Manchester’s Boilard drilled a 3-pointer to slice Middletown’s third-quarter lead to 37-30 with 1:33 left. After a Bushay jumper spun out, DeSena stole Manchester’s ensuing possession and went the rest of the way for a layup before the Red Hawks struck with the 3 again — this time by Ryan with 34 seconds to go.

“We tried to show them a look to start the third quarter that they haven’t seen and they actually did a really job against it,” Smernoff said. “And then we went back to our bread butter, which is two different matchup zones and presses, and that kind of got us back on track.”

The Blue Dragons responded immediately as Bryonna Bell cleaned up a miss and converted and Bushay drove for a layup after Manchester turned it over for a 43-33 lead after three.

The game got away from Manchester in the first two minutes of the fourth quarter. Bushay grabbed a DeSena miss and scored, then hit a 10-foot jumper 40 seconds later, and Tajahnae Brock scored underneath. With Manchester calling a timeout down 51-35 with 5:45 remaining, this one was essentially over.

Smernoff praised the play of Bushay, who is ever-present on defense and can do great things with the ball when she’s in the open court. Bushay had a 40-point a game in her sophomore season.

“She’s just so aggressive. Really, the first 2 games she has to have five or six steals per game. She’s just all over the court,” he said. “She blocks shots. She’s the kind of player that plays 94 feet. A lot of the times you ask your players to play both ends of the floor, end line to end line, and she really does it. Obviously, I’m thrilled she’s on our team.”

Middletown plays E.O. Smith in Storrs on Monday.

Madison Boilard 5 0-0 14, Kyla Haataja 0 0-0 0, Mia Gilbert 2 0-0 4, Tiara Tyson 9 3-6 22, Elise Ryan 2 0-0 6. Totals: 18 3-6 46.

Shalyn Smith 3 0-0 7, Jada Bryant 2 1-2 5, Tyah Pettaway 7 1-2 15, Alex DeSena 1 2-3 4, Shadae Bushay 9 0-2 19, Bryonna Bell 2 0-0 4, Ava Studinski 0 0-0 0, Kaila Torres 1 0-2 2, Tajahnae Brock 2 0-0 4. Totals: 27 4-11 60.

Score By Quarters
Manchester…5 10 18 13–46
Middletown..15 14 14 17–60

3-pointers: Middletown: Smith 1, Bushay 1; Manchester: Boilard 4, Ryan 2, Tyson 1.

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