ROCKY HILL - The names on the Rocky Hill boys’ basketball roster never changed this season, but the players that took the court in December looked completely different than the scrappy squad that nearly made a miraculous march through March’s Class M tournament.
The Terriers struggled for most of the season, losing 12 of their first 18 games. They were in danger of missing the tournament and needed to win their final two regular season games on the road just to qualify for the postseason. But Rocky Hill did just that, beating RHAM and league powerhouse Bloomfield in dramatic fashion to sneak their way into the tourney.
“Our team really came together at the end of the year,” senior captain Tommy Seaver said. “Everyone knew their role and what we had to do in order to achieve our goal of making the postseason.”
The pair of road wins earned Rocky Hill the 24th seed in the tournament and a date with the heavily favored Bullard-Havens Tigers. The Bridgeport-based school entered the tournament as the ninth seed and had won seven of their final eight regular season games. Despite the discrepancy on paper, Rocky Hill traveled to Bridgeport with confidence and easily defeated the Tigers, 64-48. The shocking first-round upset put the rest of the teams vying for the Class M championship on notice.
One of those teams was the eighth-seeded St. Paul Catholic Falcons, who were Rocky Hill’s next opponent. The higher seed meant the Bristol school would host the suddenly dangerous Terriers just two days after Rocky Hill had pulled off the opening round upset. The rambunctious, standing room only crowd at St. Paul Catholic High School witnessed an instant classic that saw the home team end Rocky Hill’s season, 71-63, in a game that was much closer than the final score would indicate.
St. Paul entered the contest just as red-hot as Rocky Hill, riding a 10-game winning streak and having won 14 of their last 15 games. Both teams played a physical brand of basketball and the game was played at a breakneck pace for most of the first quarter, which ended with the Falcons holding a 14-12 advantage.
It was the second quarter when things got interesting. Rocky Hill started the quarter on a 14-2 run, thanks to an offensive spark from freshman Nicholas Casiano and the defensive prowess of Seaver. Casiano started the quarter by knocking down a long three-pointer from the right wing and scored four more points during the run. Seaver dominated the interior on both ends of the court, grabbing four rebounds, stealing two passes and blocking a pair of shots during Rocky Hill’s second-quarter surge.
The sudden change in momentum forced St. Paul head coach Steve Phelps to substitute to a smaller lineup in an attempt to match Rocky Hill’s short, but athletic rotation. The lineup change immediately helped as the home team went to an 11-0 spurt, narrowing the deficit to 28-27 with two seconds left in the half. Rocky Hill tried a full-court inbound pass in an attempt to get one last shot before the half, but the errant pass was stolen by St. Paul’s Reid Morin at midcourt. The 6’3 senior was grabbed and fouled as he heaved a 40-foot desperation shot as time expired. The buzzer-beating shot miraculously banked off of the backboard and went in, which sent the home crowd into hysterics. Morin sank the ensuring free throw, ending the half with a rare four-point play.
Rocky Hill head coach Josh Dinerman and his staff did an excellent job at refocusing the Terriers after the zany finish to the first half. Rocky Hill came out of the halftime locker room and played inspired behind the leadership of senior guard Ahmed Hassaan. Hassaan scored seven points of his 10 points during the third quarter and Rocky Hill retook the lead, 42-40, with 2:04 left in the third. The lead was short lived, as St. Paul again closed the quarter with a fury, scoring six-straight points. All six points came from imposing 6’5 junior DeJuan Rodriguez, who finished the game with 17 points.
The teams traded baskets for most of the fourth quarter and Greg Marzilli, who finished with 13 points, kept Rocky Hill within striking distance with one clutch shot after another. The senior guard briefly gave Rocky Hill a 59-57 lead with a 16-foot jumper prior to St. Paul going on a game-clinching 7-1 run. Marzilli ended St. Paul’s run by draining a high-arcing baseline three-pointer with 47 seconds remaining. The shot narrowed the visitor’s deficit to one point, but it was too little, too late. St. Paul drained all five of their free throws and closed scoring the game’s final seven points.
Following the tournament exit, Rocky Hill’s emotional leader was able to reflect and give insight into the team’s late-season surge.
“[One of the things] that helped us in the last two games of the regular season, as well as the state tournament games, was our support,” Seaver said. “The number of students, families and fans that came out was an important factor. They motivated us and it was greatly appreciated.”
The tournament loss was the last game for Seaver and his fellow seniors Hassaan, Marzilli and Benjamin Ciccaglione. All four were major contributors this season and have left a lasting impression on the players who will be trying to fill their kicks. Sharp-shooters Casiano and Brendan Boornazian will assume the bulk of the leadership role next season, along with post player Jacob LaTorra and versatile swingman Dave Sevigny.