Pictured: East Hampton’s Nate Ireland cuts through Cromwell’s defense for a layup in the first half of Tuesday’s Shoreline Conference game at Jake Salafia Gymnasium. Ireland scored seven points for the Bellringers. (Photo by Marc Silvestrini)

By Marc Silvestrini
middlesexcountysports@gmail.com

CROMWELL — Like most good coaches, Cromwell’s John Pinone is a hard man to please – a real perfectionist who will always find some facet of the game that his team needs to improve, even when it is riding a winning streak.

Shortly after Cromwell’s 67-45 boys basketball victory over a good East Hampton team Tuesday night — the Panthers’ third straight win of the young season — Pinone said he was unhappy with the way his team was playing defense.

Very unhappy.

“Our defense has been very porous, we’re just terrible on defense right now,” he said. “We’re not playing smart, we’re not moving well, we’re doing a lot of reaching in and committing bad fouls, we’re not rotating real well to the weak side.”

However, Pinone did admit he was pleased with certain other aspects of the Panthers’ game.

“Our offense moves the ball well, they’re a very unselfish team,” he said. “We also do a good job in transition and we work hard to get a lot of second-chance opportunities.”

Cromwell’s Jake Salafia thwarts Brady Lynch’s drive to the basket in Tuesday’s Shoreline game. (Photo by Marc Silvestrini)

As far as the team’s defense is concerned, Pinone made just one prediction.

“We will get better on defense,” he said.

Cromwell outscored East Hampton 12-4 over the final seven minutes of the opening quarter to turn a 2-2 game into a 14-6 lead after one quarter of play.

The Panthers then outscored the Bellringers 19-10 in the second quarter to take a comfortable 33-16 lead into the half.

The key stretch in the second quarter took place after a Nate Ireland layup cut the Panthers’ lead to nine at 23-14 with five minutes to play in the half. Over the next four minutes, Gianluca Albert (with six points) and JJ Feehan (four points) combined to score the next 10 in a row to stretch the Panther lead to 19 at 33-14.

The plucky Bellringers fought their way back into the game by outscoring their hosts 18-13 in the third quarter and then twice moved to within 10 points of the Panther lead early in the final quarter. But after a pair of Ireland free throws had trimmed the Panther lead to 48-38 with 5:52 left, Cromwell’s Albert (nine points) and Logan Mure (five points) triggered a game-closing 19-7 run that iced the game.

East Hampton, which has opened its season under first-year coach John Antolini with games against three of the best teams in the Shoreline Conference — Morgan, Valley Regional and Cromwell — is now 1-2 on the season with the win coming against Valley last Wednesday by a 49-47 count.

“We played much better on defense in the third quarter and that helped us cut their lead to 10 in that fourth quarter, but then we missed a key layup that would have cut it to eight, and they got hot and we just couldn’t get it any closer,” Antolini said.

“We had a tough first quarter and fell behind early but I liked the way our kids hung in there and kept fighting.”

When asked about the tough early schedule, Antolini said he would like to have ended the three-game stretch with a better record but that the difficult early-season test has taught his team a valuable lesson.

“I think it’s proved to our kids that they can play with anybody in this league,” he said.

Coach John Pinone on the Panthers’ defensive game: “We’re not playing smart, we’re not moving well, we’re doing a lot of reaching in and committing bad fouls, we’re not rotating real well to the weak side.”

Albert led all scorers with 26 points on the night, a total that included a 10-for-10 performance from the foul line.

“We’re a pretty good shooting team, and tonight, when they came back at us in the fourth quarter, we just started knocking down our shots again and went on a real good shooting tear,” Albert said.

“I was never really nervous when they cut into our lead because I have a lot of faith in my teammates,” he added.

Albert’s big scoring night was augmented by sophomore Victor Payne’s 14-point effort and Jake Salafia’s eight points.

Three Bellringers — Ethan Palma, Drew DiStefano and Connor Michalowski — finished with eight points on the night, while Ireland added seven.

The Panthers will put their unbeaten streak on the line when they travel to Vernon on Thursday for a game against Rockville. The Bellringers will travel to Washington, Conn., Thursday night to play Shepaug Valley.

EAST HAMPTON (1-2)
Drew DiStefano 3 1 8, Ethan Palma 3 1 8, Jye Lynch 2 0 4, Nate Ireland 2 3 7, Connor Michalowski 3 0 8, Jack Blakey 1 2 4, Brady Lynch 1 4 6. Totals: 15 11 45.

CROMWELL (3-0)
Gianluca Albert 7 10 26, Louis Friend 1 0 2, Victor Payne 6 2 14, Joel Feehan 1 2 4, Jake Salafia 3 0 8, Logan Mure 1 3 6, Tyler Daniele 2 1 5. Totals: 21 18 67.

3-pointers: East Hampton–Michalowski 2, DiStefano 1, Palma 1; Cromwell–Albert 2, Salafia 2, Mure 1.

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