By KEN MORSE
The Plainville boys basketball team inched closer to their goal of reaching the state tournament for the first time in eight seasons when they upended Conard, 59-45, on Jan. 22 to even their record at 6-6.
Senior center Sam Lestini took care of business, scoring a game-high 20 points, hauling down 16 rebounds and swatting away five blocked shots. Dane Stephens knocked down 11 points and came up with four steals. Ben Dougherty added 10 points and dished out four assists.
“We had a few games where we ended up on the wrong side,” said Lestini. “But against Conard we clicked. We have been working hard in practice. Tonight Brady (Callahan) was getting me the ball, and I was just taking what they gave me.”
Conard had the upper hand early as they scorched the nets out on the perimeter tossing in four three-pointers in the opening quarter to grab a quick, 16-11 advantage. The Chieftains were led by Connor Olechna with a trio of three-pointers. Peter Simplicio added two from beyond the arc, and Arsen Shtefan added another. Each of them scored 11 points in the loss.
In the second quarter Brady Callahan started to direct the offense (5 points, 7 assists) as Plainville hung another 19 points on the board. Javan Paradis (4 points, 4 steals) and Pierre Ramirez (4 points, 3 steals) began to put pressure on the ball as Conard began to misfire.
When the Chieftains tried to go inside, Alec Couture (5 points, 6 rebounds) picked up the slack, allowing Lestini full reign on the shooter and a pair of blocked shots cooled off the Conard offense.
The 19-6 second quarter advantage gave the Blue Devils a 30-22 cushion at the half. Head coach Jim DiNello devised the strategy for the second half in the event that Conard tried to use the perimeter again to fire up the long range threes that were so effective in the opening quarter.
“This was, without a doubt, the smartest basketball we’ve played all season,” said DiNello. “We learned a few lessons from the Manchester game. We came out against Conard and played the game the right way.”
DiNello said that the boys went to the rim at the right time and made things happen. “We played good solid defense,” he said. “We used staggered screens and took charges when we had to. We also made good decisions with the basketball.”
Lestini started the third quarter going to the basket and Callahan found him with a pass down on the baseline for a quick bucket to make it a 10 point advantage. Conard responded with a 9-2 run to get back in the game trailing 34-31.
When the defense began to collapse on Lestini the big man had the presence of mind not to force the issue as he kicked it back out to Dougherty for back-to-back buckets and a 38-36 lead going into the final quarter.
Plainville started to mix it up to start the last eight minutes and it resulted in a game changing 11-0 run. Dougherty took a pass from Paradis swung around the defender and hit a pull-up jumper out on the wing.
When the Chieftains tried to bring the defense back out to the perimeter Plainville took it back inside with Callahan finding Lestini twice in the paint. Another pass to Dougherty on the wing drew a crowd of defenders but a quick pass to Stephens in the corner resulted in a three-pointer as Conard retreated to a timeout.Plainville was safely out in front, 49-36, with 4:15 to go. By the time Conard threw down their first basket of the quarter the game was already well in hand as the Blue Devils had a 17-2 run going with Lestini hitting three more buckets in the paint.
A loss at New Britain on Jan. 24 dropped Plainville to 6-7.
“We need two more wins in the last seven games, and we just need to take it one game at a time,” said Callahan. “It feels good to have put ourselves in this position. If we continue to work hard and execute the game plan, we will give ourselves the opportunity to make the tournament.”
Plainville will be back at it this week when they host Platt on Tuesday, Jan. 29, and then they will be at Middletown on Friday.
“We can’t look back and we certainly can’t be looking ahead,” said DiNello. “We need to come out ready to play each game one at a time.”