(As published on the New Britain City Journal website)
Todd Stigliano emerged from his postgame meeting after meeting Hillhouse on December 19 sensing his New Britain High boys basketball team learned valuable lessons.
Stigliano is as competitive as coaches come. Obviously members of his fraternity detest losing, but Stigliano came away from the 61-55 setback against Connecticut’s most storied scholastic program with the kind of facial expressions generally reserved for victory.
“They aren’t the best team in the State of Connecticut by accident,” Stigliano said. “We didn’t just go out and play a nobody. We played by far the toughest team in the State of Connecticut – physically tough, mentally tough. Nobody quit, and that’s what matters for us.”
New Britain has the depth and talent to go deep into the Class LL tournament this season. The Hurricanes have size and strength in frontline starters Craven Johnson and Curtis Hyman. Curtrelle Hyman is a capable reserve. They possess crowd-pleasing athleticism in multitalented swingman Daequone Clark. They have backcourt symmetry and a wealth of riches in Aramis Hernandez, Sheveran Williams-Hardy, Michael Robinson and Annuel Saint Juste.
The ’Canes will have to go through the likes of Hillhouse at some point if they are to fulfill their goal of winning a state title.
“I wanted to see what we were made of early in the season,” he said. “They don’t hand out state championships in game three.
“We’ll get another chance at it. The question is will we be ready. From what I saw, we’ll be ready.”
Hillhouse is a formidable outfit. Andre Anderson, a prolific running back for the Academics’ Class M champion football team, has an explosive first step and shoulders that only preparation for football can chisel. He has that gift great point guards have to find a way to the glass.
His running mates are rangy sniper Bobby Bynum and Shane Christie. The three guards combined for 73 percent of Hillhouse’s points. When their arching three-point shots caromed off the rim, they kept shooting.
The Acs led by just five points early in the third quarter when Bynum (game-high 22 points) flipped in four treys within 2½ minutes. The lead suddenly soared to 39-28. The Hurricanes trailed by 10 heading into the final four minutes but their confidence had grown. They realized that like them, the Acs laced up their Nikes one eyelet at a time.
“I thought our big guys boxed out better than they had but I told the guards they had to help,” Stigliano said. “There were a lot of long rebounds, and even though we did a decent job of boxing out, it wasn’t enough.
“With a team like that, it’s a toughness thing. That’s why they rebound so well. … They killed us on the glass and that’s the difference in the game.”
Statistics bore him out. New Britain shot 33 percent from the field (18-for-54) and Hillhouse shot 32 percent (21-for-66). Both shot a disconcerting 54 percent from the foul line. Although Johnson grabbed 17 rebounds and Curtis Hyman had eight, the Acs had five guys pounding the offensive boards.
“[Craven and Curtis] went hard all night,” Stigliano said. “They had to be physical. They had to outjump people who were bigger. I’m proud of them.”
Based on his team’s approach, Hillhouse coach Renard Sutton isn’t likely to write a profound treatise on strategy.
His immensely gifted stars go into a weave when they get the ball in their attack zone. When Bynum and Christie get looks from beyond the arc, it’s bombs away. The other option is Anderson using that first step to penetrate the lane for a layup or an assist. They go about their business confident that they own the glass.
Their defense is coast-to-coast pressure, with sticky halfcourt traps often leading to breakaway hoops and thundering dunks. Turnovers (26) were devastating, and that’s where Stigliano knows the ’Canes can improve.
“I said if we could keep the turnovers under 20, we’d have a chance to win the game. We need to be tougher and smarter with the ball,” he said.
Foul shooting, he said, will also have to get better. The combination of missed free throws, giveaways and losing the battle of the boards combined to shatter any dreams of upset.
Yet as the Acs made their way back to New Haven, Stigliano was smiling. New Britain’s growth over four challenging quarters served as superb preparation for the league schedule that lies ahead.
“If you get into a position come tournament time where you haven’t felt the tournament atmosphere, then you don’t know how your kids are going to react,” he said. “At least now, our kids are used to what happens when the other team makes a big play and the crowd erupts.”
The ’Canes encountered such surroundings when they fell in the Class LL quarterfinals last March at Fairfield Prep.
“You need to be ready for that and this game helps you prepare,” he said. “What do you do, down 10, everything going wrong and the crowd is against you? Do you have what it takes inside to step up? And we responded.”
Are lessons learned from game three that result in a defeat be absorbed well enough for New Britain to make a deep tournament run? If the fabled March winds prove to be of Hurricane proportion, Stigliano and his boys will remember the night of December 19.