Pictured: Coach Eric Holley (center) and the Blue Dragons have won three straight after Monday’s 57-52 victory over Hartford Public.

By Paul Augeri

Middletown wasn’t its sharpest at times Monday night while playing with a lead, but the Blue Dragons once again closed out an opponent in the most tense of fourth-quarter moments.

After Hartford Public cut a seven-point Middletown lead to 54-52 with 42.5 seconds left, Matt Steuerwald set up Elijah Wilborn for a baseline dunk on the team’s next trip down the floor. Wilborn then sank the front end of a one-and-one after rebounding a 3-point Owls miss with 15 seconds left, which put a bow on the Blue Dragons’ 57-52 CCC victory at LaBella-Sullivan Gymnasium.

“We survived. A win is a win,” Middletown coach Eric Holley said. “We’re figuring out how to win the tough games.”

Meanwhile, Wilborn turned in his best performance of the season — 23 points, 19 rebounds and four blocks — on a night when Middletown struggled mightily with its shot. The Dragons were 2 of 12 from 3-point range in the first half, 2 of 16 overall, and 7 of 19 from the free-throw line.

Wilborn could have flirted with a 30-point double-double, but was 0 for 5 from the stripe before sinking the much-needed free throw in the closing seconds. Operating at a significant height advantage in the post, Middletown went inside to the 6-foot-8 senior early and often. Wilborn (15 points and 28 rebounds against Prince Tech last week) had 10 points and 9 rebounds in the first half.

“We are still getting him to understand that he’s the guy and I’ve been preaching to him to demand the ball and be a presence, to put his imprint on the game,” said Holley. “He’s starting to get that.

“I think the other key is the guys being patient and running the offense. We’re getting the kids to understand we have a mismatch every time down the court. It doesn’t mean Eli has to shoot it, but if he touches it that makes life easier for everybody.”

The win was the third straight for Middletown (6-3), which last week held off Prince Tech down the stretch and beat a good Manchester team from start to finish. The Dragons are primed for a midseason run in the win column, as five of their next six opponents are struggling and under .500.

Steuerwald also scored in double figures for Middletown with 10 points. Nasir McDaniel contributed 10 off the bench and Tim Vaughters finished with 7.

Elijah Perry led Hartford Public (2-6) with 13 points.

Middletown jumped out to a 10-4 lead, with Wilborn doing all of the scoring, but a 21-10 run by Hartford Public that extended late into the second quarter totally changed the game.

The Owls’ lead grew to eight in the final minute of the first half before Vaughters, who was fouled on a 3-point try, made all three free throws to make it a 28-23 game at the break.

Middletown left the locker room with some pep in its step, which translated to a 14-2 run that set the Owls on their heels. McDaniel, who had 6 of the 14, capped the surge by scoring from the baseline with 3:57 left in the quarter for a 37-30 lead.

The excitement would be tempered by one of several Dragons mental lapses on the night, as Perry was fouled on a 3-point attempt. He made all three free throws to get the Owls within four of the lead, and Public ended up tying it at 39 on a Rashad Collins basket with 1:48 left. Steuerwald later scored off a turnover to give Middletown a two-point lead heading into the fourth.

Middletown scored eight points in the first three minutes of the fourth quarter, the last two from Wilborn in the post, for a 49-41 advantage. But another mental lapse — a technical foul — disrupted the Dragons’ flow and the Owls took advantage, cutting the deficit to five.

“We can’t have those,” Holley said, referring to his team’s mistakes, which included fouling four times on 3-point attempts. “We do closeouts every day in practice. Even in the Prince Tech game, it happened then. When these guys get tired, you see the mental lapses. We have to continue to work on (eliminating) them.”

Hartford Public closed to within 52-49 with 2:03 left, but Steuerwald rebounded his own miss inside and was fouled to keep possession with Middletown. The Dragons got a big basket to go up 54-49 on Wilborn’s first dunk from the baseline with 1:52 left.

James Majors scored 30 seconds later in transition to cut the Owls’ deficit to three, but that would be their final field goal of the night.

Middletown visits Enfield (3-7) on Thursday and plays three times next week: home games against Plainville (3-9) on Monday and rival Platt (8-3) on Wednesday, and a road game against Newington (3-6) on Thursday.

“The key is we can’t go into any game thinking we’re better than anybody else,” Holley said. “We’ve gotta play hard and with energy and effort. If we do that, we can get on a nice win streak. That’s the goal.”

James Majors 4 1-2 9, Elijah Perry 2 8-10 13, Abdul Sani 5 1-2 11, Jaelon Owens 3 3-7 11, Traiquan Hodge 2 0-0 4, Rashad Collins 2 0-0 4, Jeyko Santiago 0 0-0 0. Totals: 18 13-21 52.

Chace Petgrave 1 2-4 4, Matt Steuerwald 4 1-2 10, Tim Vaughters 2 3-3 7, Elijah Wilborn 11 1-6 23, Marshall Buterl 1 0-0 3, Nasir McDaniel 5 0-2 10, Omar Gutierrez 0 0-2 0, Dariyon Drake 0 0-0 0, Justice Freeman 0 0-0 0. Totals: 24 7-19 57.

Score By Quarters
Hartford Public…15 13 11 13–52
Middletown………13 10 18 16–57

3-pointers: Hartford Public–Owens 2, Perry 1; Middletown–Butler 1, Steuerwald 1.

Elsewhere in the county on Monday:

Hale-Ray 69, Grasso Tech 44

Feuter Arias 3 0-0 7, Randy Vidal 4 2-2 13, Cole Jorgenson 1 0-0 3, Charis Johnson 4 1-2 10, Dom Martinez 2 2-4 6, Kelvin Paulino 1 3-3 5. Totals: 15 8-11 44.

HALE-RAY (9-2)
Drew Conroy 1 0-0 3, Loudon Chupas 12 1-3 27, Mamush Ciccarello 4 1-1 12, Miles Gagne 4 1-1 11, Charlie Gable 2 0-0 4, Braden Lankrage 1 0-0 3, Nate Matetich 3 0-0 6, Austin Sevigny 0 1-2 1, Joel Kindle 0 0-0 0, Aiden Brown 1 0-0 2. Totals: 28 4-7 69.

Score By Quarters
Grasso Tech….9 13 10 12–44
Hale-Ray……..20 21 16 12–69

3-pointers: Grasso Tech–Vidal 3, Arias 1, Jorgenson 1, Johnson 1; Hale-Ray–Ciccarello 3, Chupas 2, Gagne 2, Conroy 1, Lankrage 1.
Up next: Hale-Ray vs. Valley Regional, Tuesday, 7pm.

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