CROMWELL - The Cromwell Panthers and Valley Regional Warriors basketball teams are very familiar with one another. Both teams are part of the Shoreline Conference, meaning they play at least two times each season. This season was twice as special--the conference foes faced each other four times and it was only fitting that the fourth and final game determined who would advance to the Class S Championship game.
Coming into the semi-final showdown, Cromwell had suffered their only conference loss of the season against Valley Regional in Deep River, but had won the next two contests. One of those victories was a 72-53 whitewash of the Warriors and the other was a Shoreline Conference tournament victory. Both wins were part of Cromwell’s 14-game win streak heading into the win-or-go-home tournament game.
The setting for the epic fourth game was Sheehan High School in Wallingford, which was packed with equal parts Panther and Warrior supporters. The game lived up to the hype and wasn’t decided until the final minute of a memorable 61-57 Valley Regional victory.
Valley Regional point guard David Bradbury was the difference maker and put on a show for the standing room only crowd. The electrifying junior scored a game-high 25 points, including 11 in the fourth quarter. Bradbury’s huge night helped the Warriors overcome foul trouble in the first half and untimely turnovers in the final quarter.
Bradbury’s teammate and fellow junior Chris Jean-Pierre was one of the Warriors that got into early foul trouble, picking up two fouls in the first two minutes of the game. Jean-Pierre, who entered the contest averaging a team-high 19 points and nine rebounds per game, was forced to sit out the final 14 minutes of the first half.
Despite the absence of their leading scorer, Valley Regional never trailed during the first half and the game was tied at intermission. Cromwell’s Matt Turkington tied the game at 23 with a long three-pointer in the waning moments of the second quarter. The three-point shot was part of his nine-point effort in the first half for the senior center. The 6’5” Turkington finished the game with a team-high 16 points and eight rebounds.
Turkington gave Cromwell its first lead of the night when he pump-faked a three-point attempt and dribbled inside the arc before knocking down a 17-foot jumper, giving the Panthers a 25-23 advantage. The tie-breaking shot came after a sloppy start to the second half for both teams. Neither team scored for the first two and a half minutes of the third quarter and officials warned players of both teams after chippy-play and trash talk had ensued.
After trailing for the first time in the game, Valley Regional closed the quarter on a 17-9 run. Jean-Pierre returned from foul trouble and his fresh legs helped spark the run, scoring nine of his 16 points in the third quarter. The scoring advantage provided the Warriors a 40-34 edge enter the fourth quarter.
Cromwell started the final quarter in championship form, using the energy of senior guard Josh Green. Green scored four points, threaded a perfect pass to Jake Regula for an assist and stole three passes over the first two minutes of the final frame. His finger roll layup narrowed the deficit to 45-44, forcing Valley Regional coach Kevin Woods to call a timeout with 5:38 left in regulation.
Green, who can play all five positions on the court, continued his fourth-quarter heroics and regained the lead for Cromwell by stealing an entry pass before taking the ball coast-to-coast for an uncontested layup. Two possessions later, Turkington knocked down another triple to give Cromwell their largest lead of the game, 55-52, with 3:21 to play in regulation.
Desperately needing an offensive spark, Valley Regional put the ball into the hands of Bradbury, who canned a high-arcing baseline jumper to pull the Warriors within a point. On the following offensive possession, the clutch guard nailed a contested three-pointer, giving the Warriors a 57-55 lead.
Undeterred, Turkington countered by tipping in his own missed shot, tying the game at 57. Regula then grabbed a defensive rebound and Cromwell called timeout with 44 seconds to play. During the timeout, the Panthers designed a play hoping for one last possession, but they turned the ball over on the inbound pass and Jean-Pierre easily coasted down the court for an uncontested layup. Cromwell again committed a turnover on the next possession and Valley Regional sealed the game from the free-throw line.
The loss ends a great season for Cromwell, who finished with a record of 23-3. They played at a championship level for most of the season despite falling short of their ultimate goal. Departing seniors Turkington, Regula, Green, DeAndre Hamblin, Mike McNally, Shant Darakjian, and Logan Lessard will be hard to replace, but head coach John Pinone has been able to work his magic year after year.
Valley Regional wound up losing 65-56 to Sacred Heart in the Class S Championship game at Mohegan Sun Sunday afternoon.