East Catholic Offense Shut Down in Semis Loss

By Danny Atkinson

WEST HARTFORD – Heading into the Class LL Tournament semifinal game against Hillhouse Wednesday night, East Catholic had been averaging nearly 83 points per game in the tournament and had not  scored fewer than 60 points in a single game the entire season.

That all changed against  the Academics.

Hillhouse never let the Eagles high powered offense get rolling and defeated East Catholic 53-45 in front of a large crowd at the University of Hartford’s Chase Family Arena. Eight players scored for the second-seeded Academics, led by senior guards Tyler Douglas and Joey Kasperzyk with 11 and 10 points. Junior guard Matt Veretto was outstanding for the Eagles, finishing with 17 points, but no teammate scored more than seven. East Catholic ends the season 26-2.

“This is a tough loss, but I’m definitely going to remember the culture of this team and that we were 19 strong,” Veretto said.

The Hillhouse defense most notably demonstrated its prowess by shutting down the Eagles elite guard duo of senior Mike McGuirl and sophomore Joe Reilly. McGuirl was held without a field goal and finished with just four points, while Reilly recorded a single field goal and six points.

“They did a great job, their defense was terrific,” head coach Luke Reilly said. “I’m sure stopping those guys was a big goal. You have to dictate action a little bit and they did, especially on the defensive end immediately.”

The Academics took control from the opening tip, which it would rarely relinquish over the next 32 minutes. Hillhouse forced two turnovers and a travel in the opening two minutes and its swarming defenders maintained their relentless pressure on East Catholic for the remainder of the first quarter, holding everyone except Veretto scoreless. On the other end, the Academics were able to establish themselves by overpowering the Eagles frontcourt, scoring multiple times off of put backs.

The Academics first three baskets were recorded on put backs, with the first and third by junior forward Mekhi Warren and the second from junior Christian Adams. Each of the scores followed roughly the same script: The Eagles forced a challenging shot but failed to box out adequately and get to the ball quickly, resulting in an easy basket for Hillhouse’s quick and powerful big men. Simultaneously on offense, East Catholic was struggling to obtain open shots and especially having difficulty penetrating the paint and finishing inside. One failed possession led to a fast break and layup for junior guard Byron Breland that gave the Academics a 9-2 lead 3:42 in.

“We had a defensive game plan where we needed to pinch in when the big man came and helped over, and we failed to follow it,” Veretto said. “They were dumping it in every time and we needed to make sure we boxed out, but instead we didn’t and they obtained a lot of second opportunities on rebounds.”

Veretto hit an open three–pointer right after Breland’s basket, but the Eagles were then held scoreless in the final three minutes as players continued to struggle with their outside shots. The defense played more efficiently during this stretch, but East Catholic entered the second trailing 14-5.

“We were unable to get to the line on offense like we wanted, and when you compound that with the turnovers issues started to mount,” Reilly said. “We were unable to get some traction and establish rhythm early.”

“Hillhouse showed in the first quarter that they wanted it more than us,” McGuirl said. “They came out playing hard and we were not mentally prepared.”

East Catholic played better on defense in the second but continued to struggle on offense, and entered halftime trailing 24-15. Kasperzyk and Breland scored at the rim to give Hillhouse a 19-6 lead, but the Eagles began to cut into it by moving the ball inside and getting to the line as well as rebounding better. Junior forward Will Pineo scored on a layup and the team hit five free throws to make it 22-13 with just less than two minutes remaining. Outside of a single defensive lapse that resulted in a three pointer, East Catholic defenders did a better job of rotating and challenging shots during this stretch, especially inside. Unfortunately, the half ended on a downote for the Eagles. Brewer concluded a fast break with a slam dunk to give the Academics their 11-point lead, and Reilly missed an open jumper that was rebounded by sophomore forward Rahesh Tibby, who proceeded to miss two free throws.

East Catholic followed the same combination of solid defense with lackluster offense in the third, resulting in a 33-23 deficit entering the final quarter.  The Eagles dug themselves into a deeper hole in the opening minutes. McGuirl and Reilly as well as others failed to connect on solid scoring opportunities. On the other end, Hillhouse continued to pound the ball inside and get to the line. When the Academics hit a contested three pointer off a timeout to take a 33-17 lead with four minutes, left, it appeared they may blow the game open. East Catholic was too good of a team to allow this to happen, however.

Following the Hillhouse three, Reilly took the ball straight to the rim and was fouled, making both free throws. Freshman forward Trey Hall stepped up and made a put back off a missed three to cut the deficit to 12, and Veretto concluded the scoring burst on a layup with one minute remaining. The defense also executed well inside on a few scoring attempts.

The final eight minutes were all over the place and featured a late East Catholic run, but the Eagles did not have enough left to make the comeback. Kasperzyk connected on two huge drives in the opening three minutes despite strong defense, giving Hillhouse a 37-25 advantage. The teams largely traded free throws for much of the fourth, with the Academics issues at the line (they finished 21 of 48) helping to give East Catholic hope. Menard hit a corner three and junior guard Jamil Hornesby hit two free throws to make it 41-35 with 2:42 remaining, but McGuirl and Reilly subsequently missed open shots. Following more free throws, Veretto hit consecutive threes to get the Eagles within four at 47-43 with 1:13 left. Hillhouse sealed the win by making six free throws however, with East Catholic missing on its final open shots.

“We got away from a lot of things we have been doing all year, a result of their defense, but also the result of not being as mentally tough as we planned on being, ” Luke Reilly said. “Mike and Joe are great players, we weren’t able to get them the ball in good scoring opportunities.”

“They were the aggressor, and myself and others were unable to ever get things going on offense,” McGuirl said.

The loss is an especially tough one for McGuirl, who led East Catholic to the state title last season and has been one of the state’s top players the past two years. McGuirl, who has a scholarship to Kansas State, discussed what he will miss most about playing for the program.

“I am going to really miss Coach Reilly. He has always been there for me no matter the situation, and has made me a better player. And I am going to miss playing alongside all my teammates. These guys are my brothers and I love them. They can win a state title next season.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *