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After winning the Shoreline Conference title just a week ago, the Valley Regional boys' basketball team set its sights on its other goal for the season: winning a Class M state championship. Behind teamwork from across the bench and senior leadership, the Warriors inched their way closer to that berth in the final with three wins last week in state tourney play, earning victories against Ellis Tech, Cromwell, and Ledyard in the first, second, and quarterfinal rounds, respectively, to advance to the semifinal that was played on March 12.
Versus 28th-seeded Ellis Tech on March 4, 5th-seeded Valley handily defeated its opponent 106-51 behind 22 points from senior Chris Connor (who also had 4 assists, 7 rebounds, and a steal), 15 from senior Jonathan Luster (who also had 5 rebounds, 3 assists, and 3 steals), and 14 apiece from senior Sten Spinella and sophomore David Bradbury. Senior Mason King added seven assists to the effort.
"Ellis Tech wasn't really on our level," said Coach Kevin Woods. "It was a JV game in the second half as we only played our starters in the first half. It was a good experience for some of our younger guys as they got to play an entire half of a state game. We did want to start off the state tournament on a good note and we were really focused, played well, and that's how you want to start the tournament."
Valley faced a familiar foe on March 6 when it hosted No. 12-seeded Cromwell and beat the Panthers 74-56 behind 21 points from both Connor and senior Chris Jean-Pierre, the latter who hit five three-pointers during the game.
"This was a tough game for us as Cromwell is well-coached. They know what we do and vice versa and to beat a team three times in a year is tough," said Woods. "I really think they played as well as they could've played as it was a back-and-forth game. Both teams shot the ball incredibly well."
The Warriors defeated the Panthers by five the first time they played them earlier in the regular season and thenm with Luster and senior Sean Cunningham back in action from injuries, defeated them more convincingly, winning by 18.
"This was a great team win and I thought we played great offense and had a lot of stops down the stretch," said Woods. "Mason King held their best player, Josh Green, to just two points-he was outstanding on defense. He really showed that he is, what I think, one of the best players on the shoreline. He's outstanding and a lot of our success is dependent on how he does in the game-he's the most underrated player in the game. He really goes under the radar in what he does for us; he makes us or breaks us. We ask him to play the best player night-in and night-out and he does it."
After a late-season snowstorm postponed the quarterfinal matchup from March 8 to 9, Valley narrowly beat 4th-seeded Ledyard 57-51 to advance to the semifinal. Luster scored 18 points and had 12 rebounds, five assists, and two steals, Cunningham scored 13 points with four rebounds and two blocks, Jean-Pierre notched 10 points, and Connor had eight.
"I saw them play three times this year so I knew they were going to be one of the teams to beat to win this title," said Woods. "They're outstanding and it was a terrific win for us. We proved that we're one of the state's best teams."
Ledyard got out to an early 4-0 start before Luster sank one of his signature threes.
"We're not used to that speed; they're a lot faster than we've seen," said Woods. "I called an early timeout and that got our guys going and we started to believe we could play with them."
The game was physical all the way through, but Valley pulled out to a 10-point lead (31-21) early in the third, then Ledyard made a run and took a 38-37 lead and both teams traded back-and-forth baskets before Valley tied it up with free throws. The Warriors were then up at one point when Cunningham hit a three with just over two minutes to go and Valley continued to make its free throws, particularly Luster, who went 7-for-8 and was clutch down the stretch.
"I think our mental toughness was the deciding factor, "said Woods. "Our experience-this is our fourth quarterfinal and now third semifinal and this group has won a title-that senior experience is going a long way. This was a great team win and everybody contributed. Sten Spinella got in there-he didn't score, but we asked him to give us a few minutes to give Chris Polo a break and he drew an offensive foul, so we got contributions, especially from our six seniors."
The Warriors next faced 9th-seeded Bloomfield in the semis on March 12 and if they beat them, will face the winner of Weston and Enfield in the final on Friday, March 15 or Saturday, March 16 at Mohegan Sun.
"Bloomfield is a litter bigger than Ledyard and very athleti so this will be a good test," said Woods. "We just have to go out and play Valley basketball and not worry about what the other teams bring. What it comes down to is us playing our style of basketball and we'll win. If it turns a little more Bloomfield style, it'll be tougher for us. But I believe with our senior leadership, we'll do the right things."