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    Thursday, June 20, 2024

    Saints pull away in second half to defeat Staples and win first state basketball title since 1982

    Tyson Wheeler hugs head coach Mark Jones while St. Bernard’s Amyre Gray (4) and Ryan Outlow (15) celebrate with assistant coaches in the final moments of Sunday night’s 63-50 victory over Staples in the CIAC Division II boys’ basketball championship game at Mohegan Sun Arena. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    St. Bernard’s Tyson Wheeler (12) and the bench celebrate after Colin O’Leary (5) made a basket during the first half of Sunday’s CIAC Division II state championship game at Mohegan Sun Arena. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    St. Bernard’s Amare Marshall (24) hangs on the net after a dunk during the CIAC Division II boys’ basketball final against Staples at Mohegan Sun Arena Sunday, March 19, 2023. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    St. Bernard’s student section cheers during the CIAC Division II boys’ basketball final against Staples at Mohegan Sun Arena Sunday, March 19, 2023. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    St. Bernard teammates, from left, Ryan Outlow, Amyre Gray, Amare Marshall and Cedrick Similien celebrate their win over Staples in the CIAC Division II boys’ basketball final at Mohegan Sun Arena Sunday, March 19, 2023. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    St. Bernard head coach Mark Jones lifts the championship trophy in front of his players following Sunday night’s 63-50 win over Staples in the CIAC Division II state final at Mohegan Sun Arena. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Mohegan — If a team wants to make the game slow, St. Bernard is cool with it.

    The Saints would prefer things be faster, though.

    Staples dictated the pace in the first half of Sunday night’s CIAC Division II boys’ basketball final against St. Bernard, slowing it down to a tempo befitting its 1937 state championship team.

    Top-seeded St. Bernard put a stop to that to start the second half as it applied a diamond-and-1 press to speed things up. The tactic worked as the game quickened and the Saints began pulling away for a 63-50 win over the No. 7 Wreckers at Mohegan Sun Arena.

    All Saints day.

    “Coach told us ‘Never give up, leave your heart out there on the floor,’” St. Bernard senior Cedrick Similien said. “‘Don’t leave the floor knowing that you could’ve done something better.’

    “All credit to coach (Mark Jones). He came up with a great scheme in the back.”

    It was the third state title for the Saints (25-3) and its first since 1982.

    St. Bernard led 19-15 after a ponderous first half.

    “I feel like we can play either way,” Saints sophomore Amyre Gray said about pace. “(But the) first half wasn’t really working well for points.”

    St. Bernard came out pressing in the second half and scored nine points in the first two minutes to go ahead, 28-17.

    The Saints ended the third quarter with a 38-26 lead.

    “We wanted to speed it up a little bit,” Jones said. “They do a good job playing at their pace and they have a really good big man (Christopher Zajac, a 6-foot-8 center). So they tried to slow it down and get it into him.

    “We wanted to speed it up and, you know, get the game going at our pace and our kids did an unbelievable job with that.”

    Staples head coach David Goldshore said, “The first half was the pace we wanted although I felt like we missed our opportunity. ... I thought we had some opportunities to go up six or eight there in the half and just couldn’t get it done. And then we got sped up in the second half.”

    Similien made 9-of-12 field goals for a game-high 21 points with five rebounds and four steals for the Saints. Gray added 11 points, four assists and four steals.

    Senior Ryan Outlow and sophomore Amare Marshall gave St. Bernard strong post play, too, impressive given Zajac’s presence.

    Marshall had 15 points and four rebounds. Outlow had 10 points and seven rebounds and defended Zajac the most.

    “Bro, Ryan did a hell of a job,” Similien said. “Amare did a hell of a job. They’re amazing. All credit to them. They shut that guy down to 12 (points). We’ll live with that. Credit to the big guys.”

    Goldshore said, “(The Saints) go to the glass real hard. We found ourselves in a lot of bad situations defensively.”

    Zajac had 12 rebounds for the Wreckers (21-7) and freshman Samson Clachko scored 10.

    Gray’s layup gave the Saints a 23-17 lead just 1 minute, 1 second into the second half. They got the ball back after their press forced a bad pass.

    Marshall turned a layup into a three-point play moments later, then had a steal and another layup to push St. Bernard’s lead to 26-17 with 6:29 left in the third.

    Gray ended the quarter with a layup to extend St. Bernard’s lead to 38-26.

    Outlow’s layup gave the Saints their largest lead, 58-40, with 2:25 remaining.

    “It (hasn’t) hit me yet,” Similien said about winning a state championship, “but once it hits me, it’s going to feel amazing.”

    n.griffen@theday.com

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