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    Sunday, March 26, 2023

    CIAC notes: Similien, Wheeler have led Saints’ resurgence

    St. Bernard’s Tyson Wheeler (12) and Cedrick Similien (1) celebrate following Monday’s 76-71 win over Windsor in the quarterfinals of the CIAC Division II boys’ basketball tournament in Montville. The two seniors will play their final game together in Sunday’s state final against Staples at Mohegan Sun Arena. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Southington — There has been a core group that has helped put St. Bernard in position to win a state title this season, among them senior Ryan Outlow and sophomores Amyre Gray and Amare Marshall.

    But seniors Cedrick Similien and Tyson Wheeler have been the architects who helped build the foundation that allowed the Saints become a championship contender again. They’ve started since they were freshmen and have a chance to go out as champions when St. Bernard plays Staples in the CIAC Division II boys’ basketball championship game on Sunday.

    “You can’t even honestly put into words what they’ve done for this program,” Saints head coach Mark Jones said at Wednesday’s luncheon for all 10 state finalists at the Aqua Turf. “I’ve told them they should be proud of themselves for the accomplishments that they’ve had throughout the years.

    “I mean, to have two kids in the same year score 1,000 points (this season) ... I don’t know too many programs that have had that and that’s a (credit) to them that they’ve worked their tails off for the last four years to build St. Bernard’s program up to what it is today. So I couldn’t be more proud of those kids.”

    The top-seeded Saints (24-3) are part of doubleheader involving Eastern Connecticut Conference teams that will close championship weekend at Mohegan Sun Arena. They’ll play the No. 7 Wreckers at 6:15 p.m., followed by No. 6 New London vs. No. 4 Mercy in the Class MM girls’ basketball final at 8:15.

    Similien, a 6-foot forward, made his first five shots during a 76-53 rout over Xavier in Wednesday’s semifinals. He made five 3-pointers and finished with 30 points.

    “He’s my brother,” Wheeler said. “We’ve been playing since seventh grade, eighth grade, I believe. He’s just developed so much as a player from being just a slasher when he was younger and just going to the hoop every time to becoming more of a shooter, getting more handles and just working hard, rebounding, doing anything we need for the team, and I just love him to death.”

    Wheeler, a 5-8 guard, had the hot hand in Monday’s 76-71 quarterfinal win over Windsor. He made a game-high four 3-pointers, including one for his 1,000th point, and scored a team-high 23.

    “I’ve seen Tyson grow a lot,” Similien said. “I joke around with him and say he’s really not that good, but he’s really one of the best players I’ve seen. He shoots the ball well; (has) a great IQ. He just knows the game of basketball. Without him, we wouldn’t be where we’re at right now because he really keeps the team together.

    “I know were both considered the leaders, but I look to him as my leader because he always keeps me intact. There was one time versus New Canaan (in a second round game on March 9) where I’m looking nervous. He comes up to me and said, ‘Cedrick, fix your (expletive) face because that was the same face I had versus Daniel Hand (in last season’s 76-65 loss in the Division III semifinals).”

    This one’s for Coach Mark

    Sunday will be the second state final for Jones. He started for Norwich Free Academy when it reached the 2001 Class LL state final.

    NFA lost to Harding, 41-38, and his Saints know how much it still bothers him.

    “He said it irks him to this day and he’s always talking about it,” Wheeler said.

    Similien said, “He still regrets it to this day even though he’s like 30-something.”

    Jones was the biggest reason why the Wildcats reached that final. He scored a game-high 17 points with four assists and was named game MVP in a losing effort. He went on to earn MVP honors on the New Haven Register’s All-State team and played at Dayton.

    “Losing, honestly, that’s the thing that you remember the most,” Jones said. “I turned the ball over late. I had a couple of costly mistakes that I remember that I’d like to try not to remember.”

    Jones laughed and added, “You know, it’s just part of the game. You move forward and hopefully these guys can get it done.”

    Jones’ players are determined to get him a state title.

    “Coach Mark has been working so hard to help us get better over the years,” Wheeler said, “and I just think he really deserves this, especially with the group we have this year.”

    Similien said, “Without him, we wouldn’t be where we’re at. He taught us everything. He put a lot of value and effort and time into us, so we really want this for coach.”

    Staples: The comeback kids

    Staples had perhaps the wildest win of the tournament on Wednesday night to advance to its first state final since 1937.

    The Wreckers trailed rival Fairfield Warde by 18 points in the fourth quarter of their semifinal but stormed back to win in overtime, 57-55.

    “I tried to coach in 90 second segments during the fourth quarter” first-year Staples head coach David Goldshore said. “I’ll always remember a quote by (former New York Yankees manager) Joe Torre. It was (1996) during Game 4, they were down 2-1 (in games) in the World Series in Atlanta and they’re down 6-0 (after five innings). Torre said, ‘Just cut it in half.’ I just remember that.

    “We were down 18 with about five-and-a-half, six minutes to go. Cody Sale hit a big three to cut it (deficit) to 14. I call timeout and I said, ‘Let’s just get it to 10 under four (minutes left).’ And next I look up and we’re down seven with 4:19 to go.”

    Wreckers junior Caleb Smith knocked down a three with 37 seconds left in regulation to tie the game at 48.

    Staples sophomore Adam Udell stole an inbounds pass near the Warde basket for a game-winning layup with 13 seconds left in overtime.

    “They had the ball with 13 seconds to go,” Goldshore said, “and you’re like, ‘Let’s just get to double overtime.

    “I’ve known (Udell) since he was five years old. He just made an instinctual, high-IQ play on the ball. He just showed one way and went the other and he just made a play.”

    n.griffen@theday.com

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