Pictured: Middletown freshman Adison Brown (13) blocks a layup attempt by Maloney’s Justice Hanna in the fourth quarter of Thursday night’s game at LaBella-Sullivan Gymnasium. (Photo by Paul Augeri)

By Paul Augeri

MIDDLETOWN — With former Middletown High basketball players inside LaBella-Sullivan Gymnasium to support one of their own in his debut as coach, the 2021 edition of Blue Dragons did not disappoint Thursday night.

With its defensive pressure setting the tone, Middletown blew out to a 17-point halftime lead and cruised from there to give Eric Holley his first win, 71-38 over CCC South rival Maloney.

Senior center Elijah Wilborn had 10 points, 18 rebounds and 7 blocks and senior guard Matt Steuerwald led the Blue Dragons in the scoring department with 13 points.

“I thought the effort was good. We were going really hard,” said Holley, who played for Middletown in the late 1990s. “You saw in the beginning that we turned them over a bunch of times, but we weren’t converting. First-game jitters. But the effort was good, the energy too, like we preached in practice. I thought all of that was really, really good. But it’s still a learning process. Two weeks from today we’ll look different, two weeks from there we’ll look different.

“So I think that if we just continue to stick together and communicate, we’re going to do well.”

Matt Steuerwald, who led the Blue Dragons with 13 points, passes around Maloney’s Donte Kelly in the third quarter. (Photo by Paul Augeri)

Middletown’s bench produced 39 points as Holley ran waves of fresh legs at the Spartans, who went 3-0 against Middletown last season but lost four-fifths of last year’s starting lineup to graduation. Maloney played without top returner Ty Flowers, who is nursing a football-related injury.

Holley showcased his depth from the start in utilizing 10 players in the first quarter and 12 by halftime.

“We have a lot of guys who can play,” said Steuerwald, a team captain along with Wilborn and senior point guard Chace Petgrave. “We’re very deep. The whole team is interchangeable.”

Middletown needed time to settle down and settle into the game after missing a host of layups and close-range shots and committing unforced errors.

A block by 6-foot-4 sophomore Justice Freeman ended at the other end with the first of Steuerwald’s three 3-pointers, which gave Middletown the lead for good at 11-9 with 2:11 left in the first quarter.

Junior Nasir Cade-McDaniel, who scored 12 points off the bench, hit a basket in transition a minute later, and senior reserve Caiden Byrd’s steal and lay-in added to the run. One of two free throws by Cade-McDaniel capped the 8-0 quarter-ending run for a 16-9 Blue Dragons lead.

Middletown outscored Maloney 13-3 over the first five minutes of the second quarter to extend the lead to 29-12. Later in the quarter, Freeman and freshman forward Adison Brown scored their first varsity buckets on consecutive possessions to push the lead back to 17 (33-16).

“We were well prepared,” said Petgrave. “The biggest thing was to show that we can get into a flow. We were a little bit slow at first, that’s what held us back, but when we started to feel that momentum, that’s when we started to take off.”

Maloney didn’t have a player with the size to body up the 6-8 Wilborn or challenge his path to the basket.

“That’s probably a top 10 team in the state,” Maloney coach Dave Parness said, “but you’ve got to box out and you’ve got to move the ball. I think they’ll see that once we watch the film of this.”

Said Holley: “Eli was doing everything we said we wanted him to do — dominate the boards, rebound, run the floor. He did all that,” Holley said. “Everyone expects him to carry the load and he showed he can do that.”

Middletown led 38-21 at the break and 53-32 after three quarters.

The Blue Dragons’ season-opening stretch of pre-Christmas games continues Saturday night against East Catholic, the No. 2-ranked team in the GameTimeCT preseason poll, in the Doc Hurley Classic at Trinity College in Hartford. The Dragons visit Glastonbury on Monday, and on Wednesday they play at top-ranked Bristol Central and UConn-bound 7-footer Donovan Clingan.

“We have a big game Saturday night against East Catholic and they’re not going to back down for anything,” Wilborn said, “so we’ve gotta pick it up now.”

Justice Hanna 1 2-2 4, Kejuan Richardson 0 0-0 0, Mekhi Seth 3 0-0 8, Marquis Ward 6 1-2 13, Tijion Johnson 0 1-2 1, Donte Kelly 2 5-8 10, Allen Lee 1 0-0 2. Totals: 13 9-14 38.

Chace Petgrave 0 1-2 1, Matt Steuerwald 4 2-4 13, Omar Gutierrez 1 0-0 2, Dariyon Drake 3 0-2 6, Elijah Wilborn 4 2-3 10, Tim Vaughters 1 0-0 2, Marshall Butler 4 3-4 11, Caiden Byrd 1 0-0 2, Adison Brown 3 0-0 6, Nasir Cade-McDaniel 5 2-4 12, Justice Freeman 2 0-0 4, Brandon Torres 1 0-0 2, Tee-Jay Jackson 0 0-0 0. Totals: 29 10-11 71.

Score By Quarters
Maloney……….9 12 11 6–38
Middletown…16 22 15 18–71

3-pointers: Middletown: Steuerwald 3; Maloney: Seth 2, Kelly 1; Maloney: Seth 2, Kelly 1.

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