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NFA boys beat East Lyme to win ECC South basketball championship

East Lyme — Personnel required the Norwich Free Academy boys' basketball team to morph into a different creature this abbreviated winter season, using more of its defensive to make up for a lack of offensive firepower.

"Last year we were the '85 Celtics, this year we were the '85 Bears," NFA head coach Chris Guisti joked.

The Wildcats had to adapt one last time on Saturday night in the Eastern Connecticut Conference South Division tournament final as second-seeded East Lyme scored the game's first nine points, causing them to switch to a three-man press.

The press did just enough to allow the fourth-seeded Wildcats to go ahead with a double-digit run in the second quarter as they held off the Vikings to win their second straight conference championship, 48-43, and send Guisti into retirement with one last win.

"We couldn't crack their defense (early)," Guisti said. "(Vikings head coach Jeff) Bernardi is one of the best at teaching fundamental man-to-man (defense). We had to do something to generate offense because our regular-half court stuff wasn't working."

Senior Jared Martin scored a game-high 24 points with four steals for NFA (9-3), which won the ECC Division I tournament last season. The league went to regional-based pods this season due to the pandemic.

"I'm just blessed that I get to go out with not only a championship, but (with) such a great group of guys," said Guisti, who spent 21 years on the Wildcats' staff, the last eight as head coach. "That's a memory that I'm always going to treasure, the dedication and the passion and all the love that they have for another."

Martin said, "We got it done. We lost a few games in the beginning (of the season). That only made us better. We're here today and we won."

Senior Jayden Francis added nine points, six rebounds and two steals for NFA.

Senior Matt Valakos had 15 points with five rebounds for East Lyme (9-4) and junior Riley Walsh made three 3-pointers and scored 10. Senior Marshall Gada added five steals.

"The intensity of this game was a championship-caliber game," Bernardi said. "We came into this game with the mentality tat we were just going to lay it all on the line. We were going to have no regrets, and we were going to have zero energy left, and the kids just gave everything they possibly could."

East Lyme jumped out to a 9-0 lead. The Wildcats didn't score their first point until Martin made a three with 1 minutes, 34 seconds left in the first quarter.

"I don't think they missed from three (early)," Guisti said. "I don't think they made more than two threes up at NFA [a 45-33 Wildcats win on March 9]. We had to make adjustment."

NFA's press and defense allowed it to go on a 14-0 run in the second quarter to go ahead, 24-16, with 2:21 left in the first half. Junior Grover Boone had two of his team's five steals in that quarter as the Wildcats led the rest of the way.

"This year, we played that defense maybe two live minutes all season long," Guisti said. "That's just about heart and grit and wanting to win. It doesn't really matter what the defense is. It's wanting to do what you have to do.

Senior Tyler Spruill and Martin and juniors Maxon Pierre Louis and Boone were the one's pressing for NFA.

"When we got (the ball) over halfcourt, that press bothered us because we weren't in our natural positions," Guisti said. "That bothered us, and we saw that in the second quarter."

It helped that the Wildcats had the best player in Martin. He made four 3-pointers.

"He really was special tonight," Guisti said. "He showed why he was a player to watch in the preseason."

Bernardi said, "He gets three or four step-back threes with hands in a face and I think that was the difference."

Martin turned his steal into a three-point play to give the Wildcats their largest lead, 40-30, with 4:41 left in the game.

"It's the best way to go out (with a title)," Guisti said. "There never a perfect moment, but this is pretty close."

n.griffen@theday.com 

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