Pictured: Old Saybrook’s Riley Lawson winds up from 3-point range during Thursday’s CIAC Division V tournament game against Achievement First. (Photo by Danny Atkinson)

By Danny Atkinson

OLD SAYBROOK — After an impressive defensive performance against East Granby in its first-round state tournament win on Tuesday, the Old Saybrook boys basketball team was riding high.

Unfortunately, it was clear Thursday night that the seventh-seeded Rams were in for a long night from the opening tip of their Division V matchup with No. 10 Achievement First Academy of Hartford.

The Phoenix, who compete in the Capitol Region Athletic League (CRAL), used their large advantage in size and speed to immediately jump on Old Saybrook, taking a 13-4 lead just 4:05 into the game. They stayed hot in the second quarter, outscoring Old Saybrook 23-12 as the Rams fell behind by 17 and were eliminated in an 81-52 loss.

“Their athleticism and ability to rebound made it hard to contest shots and keep them off the boards,” Old Saybrook coach Chris Perras said. “They attacked and beat our guys to their spot and that turned into offense and second-chance opportunities.”

Just two years removed from an 18-loss season, Old Saybrook won 15 times this winter and finished 15-8, while also posting its first state tournament victory in three years.

Achievement First (18-7) will go on to play No. 2 see SMSA in the quarterfinal round Monday.

After the teams traded baskets to open the game, the Phoenix blitzed Old Saybrook with an 8-0 run to take the aforementioned 13-4 lead. Achievement attacked the paint with abandon in the opening four minutes and the Rams could not keep them in check. At the same time, the Phoenix dominated the boards and took advantage of multiple turnovers. Rodrick Pearson began the game with two putbacks and Deivone Tanksley hit three free throws and a layup.

Meanwhile, Old Saybrook committed multiple turnovers in the first four minutes and had difficulty finishing in the paint over the front line. The Rams got back on track after a timeout, tightening up the defense and getting 3s from Aaron Tolve and senior Jake Butler to cut the deficit to 15-10 with 1:36 remaining.

The Phoenix ended the quarter up seven. Tanksley and Tolve led the way for their teams in the opening eight minutes, scoring 11 and 7 points respectively.

In the second, Tanksley and his teammates took a back seat to David Hinds. After Rams point guard Ryan Stratton answered with his first 3-pointer, Hinds hit consecutive open treys as well as a putback to put the Phoenix up 34-17 roughly three minutes into the quarter. Hinds was able to go off in part due to the Rams’ continued struggles with turnovers and finishing shots at the rim, which led to the defense coming in too late to effectively guard his 3s.

Old Saybrook played better the remainder of the quarter and got 5 points from senior Riley Lawson.

However, the Phoenix continued to answer the Rams efforts. They entered halftime leading 44-26 and with Old Saybrook searching for ways to get back into the game.

“The biggest issue for us was definitely rebounding,” Tolve said. “They were so big and if there was one key for them winning the game, it was their rebounding and getting second-chance points. If we had limited those extra possessions it could have made a big difference.”

Perras said that at halftime he emphasized the need for Old Saybrook to take charges and rebound better as well as the need for the Rams to trust one another. While it wasn’t due to a lack of effort, the team continued to struggle in the second half.

The third was the most competitive quarter by far, with Achievement winning it 14-13. Old Saybrook finally started making shots from the perimeter in the opening minutes, including threes by Butler and Tolve, and the Rams’ offensive success and missed open shots by the Phoenix made it a 50-36 game with 3:12 remaining. The Phoenix quickly dashed any hope Old Saybrook had of getting to within single digits however, ending the half on an 8-3 run. Albert Edole beat defenders for two layups and Darling ended the half with yet another putback.

The Phoenix were unstoppable in the final minutes of the game, repeatedly breaking Old Saybrook’s press for easy layups. Tanksley scored 8 points in the fourth, while Butler had 7 in his final quarter as a Ram.

Tolve led Old Saybrook with 19 points and Butler added 15. The pair each hit three 3-pointers, and the team had 9 threes in all. Stratton added 8 points. Of the six players who competed for Achievement First, five reached double figures. In addition to Tanksley’s 23, Darling scored 19 points and Hinds 13 with three 3-pointers.

The turnaround the Old Saybrook program has experienced from 2020 until now is remarkable. Two seasons ago, the Rams were 2-18, and then went 6-7 in last year’s COVID-shortened regular season. To make a huge leap in just one season, under a first-year head coach no less, can be celebrated.

Perras and Tolve had plenty to say about how special of a season it was, as well as the talent Old Saybrook returns. It is losing just one starter and four seniors overall.

“I was proud of them for everything they did and celebrating the growth that they made in the locker room. The 15 guys in there bought into everything the coaches wanted to do to turn the program around,” Perras said. “I couldn’t be happier and just hope we keep this thing going. We have plenty of younger guys that are hungry and this playoff experience will fuel them for next season.”

“We had a really big jump in the last two years and coach is very proud of us for that,” Tolve said. “We know that next year we are going to try and make another big jump and hopefully we will make a difference in the tournament. All of the main guys coming back are determined to get further.”

Deivonne Tanksley 9 5-6 23, Rodrick Pearson 4 0-0 8, Sadiki Darling 8 3-3 19, David Hinds 4 2-2 13, Albert Edole 5 0-0 10, Jeffrey Acoff 4 0-0 8. Totals: 34 10-11 81.

Brayden Cody 0 0-0 0, Wes Nobile 0 0-0 0, Jake Butler 6 0-0 15, Riley Lawson 2 1-2 6, Ryan Stratton 2 2-2 8, Bradley Kulmann 2 0-0 4, Aaron Tolve 7 2-2 19. Totals: 19 5-6 52.

Score By Quarters
Achievement First…21 23 14 23–81
Old Saybrook……….14 12 13 13–52

3-pointers: Achievement–Hinds 3; Old Saybrook–Butler 3, Tolve 3, Stratton 2, Lawson 1.

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