Enfield Loses in Semis to Avon at the Buzzer

By Danny Atkinson

NEW BRITAIN – Clinging to a one point lead with 2.2 seconds remaining, the Enfield boys basketball team needed on more stop to advance to the CIAC Division III state championship game.  But a dramatic buzzer-beating floater by Avon guard Charlie Reiss gave the Falcons a thrilling 76-75 victory and ended the Eagles dream of playing for a state title Wednesday night.

Avon’s Riley Welter made a perfect pass on the inbounds to Reiss, who had just enough time to catch and get his shot off before the buzzer sounded.

The 2017-2018 season has been a season of growth for Enfield boys basketball, both as a team and a program. The Eagles young core improved its skills and chemistry and matured tremendously during the season.

“If you watch the film of the winning play, it does not lie,” Enfield coach Kevin Zalucki said. “I thought there was a little bit of contact there, but at the end of the day, hats off to Avon. They executed their play down the stretch and I have zero excuses as a coach.”

Enfield, which plays just one senior, finishes its campaign 20-5. The program was attempting to make its first state final since 2004. Junior guard Jadon Archer, one of the top scorers in the state, had another brilliant game, scoring 43 points, draining seven three-pointers, and made a series of huge baskets in the fourth quarter, including the final go-ahead score. He said he knew it would take a perfect play at the end for Avon to pull it out and that is exactly what happened.

“I knew the play was coming, but the big man squared me,” Archer said. “I tried to jump and he just blocked me.”

Enfield significantly outperformed expectations this season, going 16-4 during the regular season.

Avon (16-8), is a senior dominated team and will now advance to the Division III championship game Sunday at Mohegan Sun Arena vs. No. 2 Waterford, which defeated Prince Tech in the other semifinal. It is a very impressive turnaround, as the Falcons did not qualify for the last two tournaments.

“I think we never gave up, said Archer when asked about the team’s season as a whole and what made the Eagles special. “Nobody really thought we would be here, not even around our community. We just proved to everybody that we’re here and ready to play.”

Enfield made two impressive comebacks that placed it on the brink of winning, the first coming late in the third quarter and the second in the game’s final minutes. With the Eagles struggling on defense and playing inconsistently on offense, it trailed 56-45 with just over three minutes remaining in the third. Just then, it flipped the script by going on a 13-2 run to tie it. The defense, which had shifted to playing a 2-1-2 press, began to speed the Avon offense up and play more aggressively. It forced more difficult shots, particularly around the rim, and multiple key turnovers.

Archer was the offensive catalyst during this run. He hit consecutive three-pointers from the top of the key, the second becoming a four-point play, to cut the deficit to 58-52. After Enfield’s physical defenders forced two Eagles misses at the rim, Archer scored on a putback with roughly a minute left. Finally, a pair of steals led to the tying baskets. First, sophomore guard Alfred Colon jumped a passing lane to steal the ball and easily score on a fast break layup. Just seconds later, sophomore guard Jaylen Brown smoothly stole the ball from a guard and found freshman guard Ty Callaway streaking past the defense, and his layup knotted the score at 58 with 15 seconds to go. After the teams traded baskets at the beginning of the fourth, a bucket by Brown gave EHS a brief lead, its first sense midway through the opening quarter.

“In the second half, our press sped them up and we just read the passing lanes, got some steals and made layups. We brought the intensity up, that’s the way we like to play,” Archer said.

After the Eagles briefly took the lead, the Falcons immediately snatched it back with a 9-0 run. A layup by guard Jack Hall tied the score at 63 with 5:08 remaining. A jumper by guard Jordan Williams from the left handed AHS the lead again, and Hall nailed a three from the top of the key to put it up five. Finally, an athletic putback by center Connor Harris concluded the run with slightly under four minutes remaining. During this run, the Falcons scored largely due to efficient ball movement and its defense, which was able to make stops that helped the offense get down the floor quickly. Enfield was stopped a few times around the rim, with Avon’s defining defensive play a block on Archer.

The Eagles are a team that have prided themselves on their toughness and ability to handle adversity all season, and they immediately hit the Falcons back, bettering the run by one point. Colon was fouled on three straight possessions, and hit five of six at the line to cut the deficit to two with 1:57 remaining. Colon’s layup attempts were set up by quality passing and the defense, which made difficult stops and strong outlet passes. On the following possessions, Archer again showed why he was the game’s best player and extremely clutch. He forced a steal and executed a three-point play, giving Enfield the lead again, and made a fast break layup over the hands of a defender to put the team up 73-70 with 1:19 remaining.

Harris scored at the rim on the following possession to cut the deficit to one. His team’s defense then stepped up, forcing a wild Falcons possession that resulted in an air ball and Reiss, who finished with 23 points, hitting a fast break layup with 35 seconds left. Archer stepped up one last time, maneuvering for a layup after receiving a pinpoint pass. Unfortunately, there was just enough time left for Avon to execute its winning basket. Before this, two possessions were denied by fouls and an Eagle stepped out of bounds on a rebound attempt.

Zalucki and Archer each discussed the Eagles ability to rally multiple times and effort and attributes the players displayed.

“It was a game of runs. We got down at the beginning, but we stuck with each other and got back up,” Archer said. “It was unfortunate we had an off night at the beginning, but we stayed together.”

“That’s been the M.O. for this team all year long that they stick together. They’ve been down, they chip away. Unfortunately, a couple of rolls didn’t go our way at the end, but I’ll ride it out with these guys,” Zalucki said. “They worked their butts off to get back into the lead, and hats off to Avon. They executed down the stretch when they needed to.”

In addition to Archer’s 43 points, Colon finished in double figures with 10. Reiss led the Falcons with 23 points, and four teammates also finished in double figures (Williams, Welter, Hall, guard Brett Muni). Enfield was able to keep itself in the game and regain the lead partly due to its ability to reach the free throw line, where it made 15-22. Avon took just a single foul shot.

Archer described the factors in his outstanding offensive performance.

“I was feeling it tonight. My teammates got me the ball and I was hitting my shots, so once they started doing so, it made it a little easier for me. The screeners helped…it’s all because of them, basically.”

The Eagles struggled on defense in the first half, and trailed 21-14 after the opening quarter and 41-34 at the break. The defense allowed Avon to move the ball efficiently and find open shooters, particularly on the perimeter. It was also frequently beat them down the floor. While Archer was outstanding in the first half and the offense got more efficient at moving the ball around, it also was sloppy at times and missed open shots at the rim.

“I pressed the wrong button as a coach,” Zalucki said. “We came out in a 1-2-1-1 press and they picked it apart. I feel terrible for these guys. I should have switched the defenses earlier.”

Zalucki ended the postgame conversation by discussing what made this year’s Enfield squad special, and the high hopes he has for the returning players.

“It’s a group of hard-nosed kids who work really hard for one another. They proved a lot of doubters wrong, and this is a very elite basketball team with almost everyone returning. I’m looking forward to a real bright future (for these players).”

 

 

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