Pictured: Middletown’s Tyah Pettaway (left) is about to beat Simsbury’s Katie Perlitz to a loose ball in the second quarter of Tuesday’s game in Middletown. (Photo by Paul Augeri)

By Paul Augeri

MIDDLETOWN – This wasn’t just a midseason matchup between two of the Central Connecticut Conference’s premier teams, each having a very good season to date.

For Middletown, Tuesday night’s game against Simsbury was a measuring stick of greater proportions.

“If we can beat Simsbury, we can beat any team,” was how senior guard Tyah Pettaway felt about it.

It took everything Middletown had, especially on the defensive end, but the Blue Dragons closed out the Trojans 54-49 in a white-knuckle affair at LaBella-Sullivan Gymnasium.

Simsbury, ranked seventh in this week’s GameTimeCT Top 10, was coming off a big win over fellow Top 10 team Ridgefield and got a 33-point night from tough-as-nails lefty guard Lauren Sabia.

Middletown’s pressure defense was vital to its victory over Simsbury. Shadae Bushay (left) and Tajahnae Brock (right) defend in the second quarter. (Photo by Paul Augeri)

But Middletown relied on its pressure defense to erase a seven-point halftime deficit and kept the lead for the final 10:55 of the game. Pettaway, who earlier this week announced she will go on to play at the University of Bridgeport, scored 24 points to lead the Blue Dragons.

“It comes down to the fact that this team now believes it can play with anyone in the state,” Middletown coach Rob Smernoff said.

The Blue Dragons (10-2) were motivated, Smernoff said, partly by Simsbury’s rise in the state writers’ poll. The Trojans are among the top five teams in Class L at 11-2, their only other loss coming against unbeaten Southington.

“I feel like this game brought up the intensity for us for the rest of the season,” Pettaway said.

Middletown finished the first quarter with an 11-9 lead when Shalyn Smith, who had a fantastic game at both ends, buried a mid-range jumper with 6.8 seconds left on the clock.

The Blue Dragons struggled from the floor in the second quarter yet only found themselves down a point at 17-16 with 2:27 left. Simsbury took over though when Sabia hit consecutive 3-pointers in a 31-second stretch and carried a 23-16 lead into the locker room.

With the game at a tipping point, Middletown used a full-court press to change the tenor in the first three minutes of the second half.

Smith, who finished with 13 points, hit a jumper in the opening seconds before the defense forced Simsbury into a 10-second halfcourt violation. Smith fed Pettaway for a layup on Middletown’s ensuing possession, and then stole the ball and drove the lane for two, cutting the Trojans’ lead to 23-22 and forcing coach Sam Zullo to call a timeout.

Simsbury lefty Lauren Sabia was nearly unstoppable on the offensive end. She scored 33 points, 22 in the second half. (Photo by Paul Augeri)

Out of the timeout, Smith got another steal and scored to give the Blue Dragons the lead. After Sabia scored directly off an inbounds play, Alexa DeSena stole a pass at half-court and took it all the way for the bucket to put the lead back in Middletown’s hands.

The lead changed hands two more times before Pettaway hit a jumper in transition following a 3-point miss by Sabia gave the Blue Dragons a 30-28 lead — and the lead for good — with 2:55 left in the third quarter.

“In the second quarter we struggled, and it would have been real easy for the girls to start doing their own thing,” Smernoff said, “but they stuck together and trusted each other. You can do all the drills you want in practice, but until the team trusts each other, you’re not going to be able to beat a team like Simsbury. And they truly trust each other.”

The coach looked back on his team’s loss to Berlin two weeks ago, when it wasn’t able to apply full-court pressure late in the game like it wanted to, as a “remember when” moment. On Tuesday, Middletown kept up the pressure, either in full or half-court mode, for the duration of the second half.

“We’ve tried to adjust as the season has gone on,” Smernoff said. “In the Berlin game we kind of got tired in the fourth quarter. We would love to press for four quarters, 94 feet, so we tried to selectively press in the first half and then really unleash it in the second half knowing we had a lot of energy.

“Obviously we told them to play as hard as they could in the first half, but in the second half we had enough fuel in the tank to go 16 full-court minutes as hard as we could, and we did.”

Middletown stretched its third-quarter lead to as many as six, at 36-30, when Shadae Bushay stole a Simsbury pass at midcourt and found Smith for an easy layup.

Simsbury got within one of Middletown’s lead, at 40-39, when Olivia Jarvis sank two free throws with 5:21 left. But Pettaway again scored in transition, forcing another Simsbury timeout, and Jada Bryant scored down low to push the lead back to five at the 4-minute mark.

Sabia, who scored 22 points in the second half, made two free throws (she was 6 for 6 from the line for the night) to make it a 46-43 game. After DeSena scored from the lane, Sabia drilled another triple from the top of the circle with 1:48 left to pull Simsbury within two.

But Middletown answered right out of Simsbury’s timeout, as Smith broke the Trojans’ pressure with a long pass to Pettaway, and Bushay stole an inbounds pass and went coast to coast with it to drive in the final nail at 52-46 with 1:08 remaining. Middletown led 54-46 when Sabia banked in a 3 in the final seconds.

“Middletown just played with great pace, great intensity, great quickness — the quickest team we’ve seen by far this season,” Zullo said. “I thought we had a good approach coming in and we didn’t execute it very well. We didn’t come to the ball hard enough and didn’t make strong enough passes, and that’s just as much a credit to everything they were doing to make it difficult for us.

“They played like they wanted to win in the second half and we played like we were just trying to hang on, and you saw the result.”

Lauren Sabia 10 8-10 33, Katie Perlitz 1 0-0 2, Olivia Jarvis 1 2-2 4, Faye Kaplinski 4 0-0 8, Amanda Gallagher 1 0-0 2. Totals: 17 10-12 49.

Shalyn Smith 5 2-3 13, Jada Bryant 1 1-4 3, Alex DeSena 3 2-3 8, Tyah Pettaway 8 6-6 24, Shadae Bushay 3 0-0 6, Tajahnae Brock 0 0-0 0, Kaila Torres 0 0-0 0. Totals: 20 11-16 54.

Score By Quarters
Simsbury……..9 14 9 17–49
Middletown…11 5 20 18–54

3-pointers: Simsbury–Sabia 5; Middletown–
Up next: Middletown at Conard, Friday, 6:45pm.

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