East Catholic Repeats as CCC Tournament Champions

HARTFORD-During the last two seasons, the East Catholic High  boys basketball program has demonstrated the ability to win competitive high-pressure games. The Eagles did so during their playoff run to the Class L championship last season, throughout this regular season, and now on Thursday night in the Central Connecticut Conference (CCC) Tournament championship game against rival Weaver High at Bulkeley High School.

East Catholic (23-1) rebounded from losing the lead early in the fourth quarter to come back and defeat top-seeded Weaver (21-3) 67-66 and earn the championship in front of a large and passionate crowd. The second-seeded Eagles won the CCC for the second consecutive season. They went on an 8-0 run beginning with roughly three minutes remaining in the game to obtain a 62-54 lead, and made a handful of stressful free throws in the final minute to seal the win.

East Catholic was led by the guard trio of Joe Reilly (sophomore), Mike McGuirl (senior) and Jamil Hornesby (junior), who combined for 54 points. The Beavers by senior brothers Jaecee and Chaylyn Martin, who scored 28 and 17 points at guard, respectively.

“It feels great to win the tournament this year because the field is so tough,” Eagles head coach Luke Reilly said. “It’s very important for us as a team to not only have a great regular season, but to also produce in the postseason and beat good teams. I am very proud of our guy’s preparation, approach and attitude.”

“It means a lot to beat Weaver. Every year we look forward to playing Weaver, and it’s great we came out and battled like we did and had fun in a great environment,” McGuirl said. “Playing in an atmosphere like this is incomparable.”

East Catholic and Weaver entered the fourth tied at 46. The Eagles offense struggled in the first half of the quarter, missing a few open shots near the rim and having difficulty moving the ball around against the Beavers well-positioned defense. During this stretch, Reilly (19 points) stepped up to keep the Eagles right with Weaver, draining three-pointers on the first possession and two minutes later to give ECHS a 54-53 lead. On the other side, Jaecee Martin hit a three on the Beaver’s first possession as well, and his brother earned a three-point play with 6:22 left when he maneuvered through the lane and hit a layup while getting fouled. Sophomore power forward Tristan Reid (11 pts) stole the ball and threw down a powerful dunk with 5:31 to go that put WHS up 55-54, and a pair of free throws on the following possession extended its lead to three.

After a quick timeout, East Catholic began its championship-clinching run. McGuirl cut the deficit to one on a layup off a forceful rebound by junior guard Matt Veretto. The Beavers missed the front end of a one-and-one and the Eagles quickly pushed the ball up the floor, resulting in a smooth jumper by McGuirl and giving them a 58-57 lead with 2:28 to go. The team continued to do an efficient job of getting the ball to the rim, with Hornesby making two free throws following an attempted layup and Reilly stealing the ball and earning a fast break layup, pushing East Catholic’s lead to 62-57 with just over 1:30 remaining. The defense also guarded the ball well during this stretch and forced Weaver into a series of off-balance shots.

Following Reilly’s score, the Beavers did their best to rally despite the little time they had and the Eagles had many opportunities at the free throw line. Reid, who was a monster on the boards all night, scored off an offensive rebound to make it 62-59 at 1:23. Veretto was fouled and missed, but McGuirl grabbed the rebound and was fouled on a put back attempt. He made one free throw to make the score 63-59 with 44.6 remaining. Chaylyn promptly left his defenders in the dust while scoring a layup with 36.6 on the clock. Reilly showed his cool a second later however, calmly hitting two at the line for a four-point lead. It was then Jaecee’s turn for a successful put back, making it 65-63. When East Catholic received the ball back, they attempted to keep the ball away from the Beaver players, while they attempted to foul to stop the clock. ECHS did a good job of playing keep-away, and following multiple fouls and timeouts, Hornesby stepped to the line with 4.5 seconds left and dropped in two to secure the triumph. Weaver made a three at the buzzer.

“At the beginning of practice we always work on free throws, and I just thought about how Coach Reilly preaches their importance,” Hornesby said about the shots. “I just went to the line and calmed myself down, and sank two big ones.”

Hornesby and his coach discussed the ways in which the offense executed well in the game’s final minutes.

“Following two turnovers, Coach called a timeout and said in the huddle that we needed to execute to win the game,” Hornesby said. “After that we were able to get a big play for Joey. He stepped up again in the fourth and hit a three, and I believe those players were huge in us winning the game.”

“We needed a couple of extra free throws down the stretch, and thank god the flow of the game went our way,” Coach Reilly said. “Jamil and Joe work really hard and I give them a lot of credit for coming through at the line in the end.”

Hornesby also discussed the Eagles strong defensive play, particularly in the fourth.

“The coaches preach playing help defense and defending with your chest, so once Jaecee started to blow by our guards a little we used help to force him to kick it out, and that caused some big turnovers near the end,” he said.

East Catholic got off to a quick start in the first and lead 13-6 midway through, but then began struggling on both ends and eventually trailed the Beavers 19-15 at its end. In the opening minutes, the Eagles made a series of open baskets at the rim thanks to crisp passing and good movement without the ball. As it got further in, however, ECHS could not contain Jaecee’s exceptional athleticism. He finished the quarter with nine points. Meanwhile, McGuirl was defended very well and went scoreless.

As the clock switched quarters, the Eagles got back on track and went on a 12-3 run to take a 27-22 lead midway through. Hornesby scored twice during this run on a layup and deep three, while McGuirl scored at the rim and Veretto on a jumper in the paint. Overall, East Catholic moved the ball more patiently and efficiently and stayed with Weaver’s guards on defense during the run.  The Beavers offense got going in the second portion of the quarter behind the Martins (who scored all 12 of its teams point) and their ability to force the defense out of position. It was not enough, however, as the Eagles scored on multiple fast breaks to take a 34-31 halftime lead.

Neither offense was filing on all cylinders in the third, with East Catholic scoring just 12 points. While the team played strong perimeter defense, its play in the paint was inconsistent, as the Martins continued to get to the line and Reid and others obtained some big rebounds that led to points. On offense, McGuirl was very effective, but other Eagles struggled against Weaver’s more efficient defense.

While the trio of Reilly, McGuirl and Hornesby were the standouts many players contributed throughout the game on offense, an attribute that has become commonplace this season. McGuirl and Hornesby discussed the team’s great depth.

“Our depth is huge because our hope is for the bench to give the same firepower the starting five can,” Hornesby said. “Everyone on the whole team can play, so it’s always next man up.”

“At different points, guys had the hot hand,” McGuirl said. “At some points Jamail was only scoring and at others it was Joey. You just have to figure out who that is and get them open.”

East Catholic is seeded third in the Class LL Tournament, which begins on Monday. It will face No. 30 Enfield. The Eagles won the Class L Tournament last year. The team is determined to win another state title and confident going in.

“Our ultimate goal has been to win a state title, and the tournament is definitely a complete minefield,” Coach Reilly said. “We just have to take one game at a time and stay focused, but I think this tournament has been evidence that we still have a ceiling to improve.”

 

 

 

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