Montville boys win first ECC regular-season title in 43 seasons
Montville — There were many smiles and laughs in a hallway outside the Montville High School gym on Tuesday night as senior Eddie Reyes-Suarez explained how they boys' basketball team managed to drag the program out of the doldrums this season despite all its youth and injuries.
"The only thing that kept us all together is trusting each other," Reyes-Suarez said. "Even though we get on each other's nerves — we get on each other's nerves a lot — at the end of the day, we're still here for each other."
Families get each other's nerves, too, but they're there for one another when it counts. And that's what helped Montville win its first boys' hoop league title in 43 seasons.
Junior Isaiah Gallagher scored 11 of his team-high 14 points in the second half as the Indians ran away from Putnam, 65-49, to win the Eastern Connecticut Conference Division IV title.
It was Montville's first ECC regular season title since 1976-77.
"I told the kids when we lost our first game, I actually thanked them, 'You guys gave me a chance,'" said Tim Strong, Montville's first-year head coach. "I felt like whoever got this job, a program that's been kind of down and hasn't had that many wins, that much success, that you have to build confidence. Whoever comes in, they have to build trust."
The Indians finished 8-14 last season.
Montville is 13-4 this season and finishes division play 7-1.
"They gave me a chance, and things just started to click," Strong said.
Montville beat Lyman Memorial for the division title thanks to the ECC's fifth tiebreaker — winning percentage against common opponents on the league-generated schedule. Montville beat Windham, whereas Lyman lost to the latter.
The Indians managed to turn things around despite injuries, the biggest being senior post Zach Southard, their best player. He's been out since the second game with a hand injury.
"I told them before the game, 'don't forget, guys, we've won nine games,'" Strong said. "That's extremely hard to do no matter who you play.
"The guys have just bought in and you could see they're all happy for each other. They lift each other up. Every night, it might be someone else who has stepped up. I think once they accepted that, everything clicked, and it kind of went from there."
Gallagher and sophomore Christian Dio were a good example of that Tuesday. Gallagher was scoreless until the end of the first half when he made a 3-pointer at the buzzer to give the Indians a 24-19 lead. He also made a reverse layup to end the third that gave his team a 39-25 lead.
Gallagher and Dio scored all of Montville's points during a 15-5 run to start the fourth. Dio made two 3-pointers and Gallagher added another.
"(They) really turned it up for us," Strong said. "They're not even our major scorers."
Senior Ethan McKinney had 11 points and five steals, junior Antonio Brown had 10 points and eight rebounds, and sophomore Bernard Hawkins had nine points and four assists. Reyes-Suarez also had six points, seven rebounds and five assists.
"Basketball is such a long season," Strong said "In any sport, you have your ups, your downs, your highs and your lows. They're kids, too. They have a lot of stuff going on in the outside world. They'll come in one day (as someone's) best friend and the next day they're not.
"At the end of the day, they always have each other's back. We've done so much bonding stuff together. I always tell them it's more than basketball."
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