Pictured: Cromwell’s Gianluca Albert looks to penetrate East Hampton’s defense late in Monday’s Shoreline Conference game. (Photo by Danny Atkinson)

By Danny Atkinson
middlesexcountysports@gmail.com

EAST HAMPTON — When you’re an undefeated team, every quality opponent is going to be looking to upset you and earn a signature victory. East Hampton was eager to get revenge against Cromwell on Monday night after a 22-point loss to the Panthers in December and gave them everything they could handle and more.

East Hampton rallied from an eight-point deficit early in the fourth quarter, going on a 9-0 run to take a 43-42 lead with 2:24 remaining. The Bellringers regained the lead with 51.6 seconds left, but Cromwell stepped up on defense in the final seconds. Three consecutive free throws allowed the Panthers to escape East Hampton with a 47-45 win.

This was the closest a team has come to defeating Cromwell (14-0) this season. The Bellringers (8-6) held the Panthers to their second-fewest points of the season.

After trailing 21-18 at halftime, Cromwell’s offense finally got going and scored 19 points in the third quarter to gain a 37-31 lead. The Panthers would push the lead to eight points at 42-34 on a 3-pointer by senior guard Gianluca Albert with 5:56 remaining.

East Hampton caught fire by attacking the paint, rebounding well and playing aggressive defense. Junior Nate Ireland, who beat defenders off the dribble all night, scored a fastbreak layup to cut the deficit to six.

The Panthers’ shooting woes returned and they missed four consecutive looks, including two 3-pointers.

The Bellringers responded by attacking the paint and getting to the line. They hit five free throws, four by Brady Lynch, to make it 42-41 with 3:12 to go.

Cromwell then got the ball to star sophomore Victor Payne, but his hook shot was short and the ball went off the Panthers. The Bellringers turned the ball over blocked a shot attempt. An open Jye Lynch raced past his defender for a layup to put EHS up one.

With their shots not falling, Cromwell decided to attack the rim. Albert was fouled on a layup attempt with 1:49 left and hit both free throws for a 44-43 lead. On the next possession, the Panthers stole Ireland’s pass, but Luke Gagnon, who was fouled, missed the front end of a one-and-one.

Bellringers senior Drew DiStefano subsequently brought the ball down the floor. With no one defending the paint to the right of the net, he drove for an easy layup, giving his team its final lead of the night at 45-44.

Cromwell embraced the challenge of a late deficit. It came out of the huddle and drained some clock before Albert drove and was fouled with 16.2 seconds to go. He calmly hit two free throws to put the Panthers up one.

On East Hampton’s final two possessions, Cromwell demonstrated how disruptive its athleticism and length on defense can be. First, Albert draped himself over DiStefano as he brought the ball up and forced a difficult entry pass, allowing Payne to swoop in for the steal. Payne was fouled with 7.4 on the clock and made one of two at the line.

Down to their last chance and trailing 47-45, the game ended in heartbreaking fashion for the Bellringers when their inbounds pass with 2.1 seconds left was intercepted by a leaping Albert, who celebrated the win with his teammates.

Cromwell coach John Pinone was happy for the win but not with his squad’s overall play in the final minutes.

“I don’t think we did a lot well, to be honest,” Pinone said. “We had an eight-point lead and allowed them to get up one and then we made the two free throws to get back up. I think our last two defensive possessions were the best all night. We didn’t play well offensively, but our defense in the last couple of minutes was good enough to help us get a win.”

Albert also underscored the effectiveness of Cromwell’s defense down the stretch.

“We trusted one another on defense, and by keeping our composure and working together we were able to win at the end,” he said. “For the game, I think we switched better than normal and were very aggressive.”

East Hampton coach Joe Antolini discussed his team’s breakdown on the game’s final play.

“They played good defense, we didn’t execute well and unfortunately the ball bounced the wrong way and we didn’t get a shot off,” Antolini said. “There were a lot more plays we could have made earlier that wouldn’t have put us in that situation.”

Antolini had positives to take from his team’s performance on both sides of the ball.

“Our defensive pressure was strong and we closed out on their shooters,” he said. “On offense, we earned a lot of great back-door looks and baskets in the paint. We just fouled too much.”

Payne and Albert carried Cromwell to the win, combining for 34 points (Payne 18, Albert 16). Albert scored seven points in the fourth and went 7 of 8 at the line. Payne had seven in the third during Cromwell’s surge into the lead.

Ireland scored 10 points in the first half and 15 overall and DiStefano added 12 for the Bellringers. While East Hampton had more field goals, the Panthers made up the difference by holding the home team to just one 3-pointer.

East Hampton came out of an ugly first half leading 21-18. While they struggled shooting and with turnovers, the Bellringers got to the rim effectively and rebounded well. Cromwell was suffocating at times on defense but consistently missed open jumpers and threes and made just six field goals. Pinone credited the defense for keeping Cromwell competitive in the first 16 minutes.

The Panthers’ offense finally showed signs of life in the third, outscoring East Hampton 19-10 to take a 37-31 advantage. Many of their points were generated off turnovers, allowing Cromwell to get open layups and fastbreak opportunities. Jake Salafia also stepped up with two 3’s.

While their teams had different results, Albert and Antolini were both pleased with their team’s efforts.

“It was definitely satisfying being able to finish on top at the end,” said Albert. “They were much more prepared this time after the first game against us wasn’t close, so it was a good feeling to get a tough win.”

“I think we learned that we can compete with anyone throughout our conference and that when we get to the state tournament, we can compete throughout it,” Antolini said.

Pinone said that East Hampton played harder and his team “didn’t really deserve to win the game.” He believes the game yielded important lessons.

“It showed that we have to make adjustments the second time we play opponents and we have to execute and play just as hard on offense as defense,” Pinone said.

CROMWELL (14-0)
Gianluca Albert 4 7-8 16, Louis Friend 0 0-0 0, Victor Payne 6 5-9 18, JJ Feehan 2 0-0 4, Logan Mure 0 0-0 0, Jake Salafia 2 0-0 6, Jack Corona 0 0-0 0, Tyler Daniele 0 0-0 0, Luke Gagnon 1 0-1 3, Keanu Gomez 0 0-0 0, Jovan Morrero 0 0-0 0, Sam Stergos 0 0-0 0. Totals: 15 12-18 47.

EAST HAMPTON (8-6)
Austin Cuthbertson 0 0-0 0, Brady Lynch 2 5-6 9, Nick Chunko 0 0-0 0, Connor Michalowski 0 0-0 0, Drew DiStefano 5 1-3 12, Jack Watkins 0 0-0 0, Brady Battit 0 0-0 0, Miller Koziel 0 0-0 0, Jacob Kerrenberg 0 0-0 0, Jye Lynch 3 3-4 9, Jack Blakey 0 0-0 0, Nate Ireland 7 1-3 15, Alex Zimmerman 0 0-0 0. Totals: 17 9-13 45.

Score By Quarters
Cromwell………..7 11 19 10–47
East Hampton…9 12 10 14–45

3-pointers: Cromwell–Salafia 2, Albert 1, Payne 1, Gagnon 1; East Hampton–DiStefano 2.
Up next: Cromwell at North Branford, Friday, 7; Hale Ray at East Hampton, Thursday, 7.

In other action Monday:

Middletown 67, Bristol Eastern 51

MIDDLETOWN (10-4)
Chace Petgrave 4 0-0 10, Matt Steuerwald 1 0-0 2, Tim Vaughters 5 1-1 12, Omar Gutierrez 0 0-0 0, Elijah Wilborn 7 0-2 14, Marshall Butler 1 0-0 2, Caiden Byrd 1 0-1 2, Adison Brown 1 0-0 2, Quadir Murphy 1 0-0 2, Brandon Torres 0 0-0 0, Dariyon Drake 4 2-2 10, Teejay Jackson 2 0-0 4, Nasir McDaniel 3 1-1 7. Totals: 30 4-7 67.

BRISTOL EASTERN (3-11)
Jerimiah Tatum 0 1-2 1, Lukas Sward 0 1-2 1, Dante DePaso 2 1-2 5, Ben Damato 5 0-0 13, Brayden Dauphinais 5 1-1 13, Nate Fries 3 1-2 9, Zaveyan Tate 0 1-2 1, Isiah Lawrence-Bynum 2 0-0 4, Jordan Chisholm 0 2-2 2, Brady Bell 1 0-0 2. Totals: 18 8-13 51.

Score By Quarters
Middletown……17 18 20 12–67
Bristol Eastern..5  19   7 20–51

3-pointers: Middletown–Petgrave 2, Vaughters 1; Bristol Eastern–Damato 3, Dauphinais 2, Fries 2.
Up next: Middletown at Maloney, Thursday, 6:45 p.m.

Hale-Ray 75, Grasso Tech 49

HALE-RAY (11-4)
Drew Conroy 0 0-0 0, Loudon Chupas 15 1-1 34, Mamush Ciccarello 7 2-2 18, Nate Matetich 5 1-3 11, Miles Gagne 0 0-0 0, Braden Lankrage 2 0-0 6, Charlie Gable 3 0-0 6. Totals: 32 4-6 75.

GRASSO TECH (4-11)
Tito Arias 1 0 3, Randy Vital 5 0 10, Cole Jorgensen 2 0 4, Dom Martinez 4 0 8, Julius Goode 7 1 18, Charis Johnson 3 0 6. Totals: 22 1 49.

Score By Quarters
Hale-Ray…….16 14 24 21–75
Grasso Tech..11 10  7 21–49

3-pointers: Hale-Ray–Chupas 3, Ciccarello 2, Lankrage 2; Grasso Tech–Goode 3, Arias 1.
Up next: Hale-Ray at East Hampton, Thursday, 7.

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