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    Tuesday, April 16, 2024

    Wheeler is the champion, takes over third quarter to beat Stonington for ECC DII title

    Wheeler’s head coach Stephen Bailey celebrates the win over Stonington in the ECC DII boys’ basketball final with his team at Mohegan Sun Arena Tuesday, February 27, 2024. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Wheeler’s Zane Brewer (34) moves past Stonington’s Robert Scavello (0) during the ECC DII boys’ basketball final at Mohegan Sun Arena Tuesday, February 27, 2024. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Wheeler’s Kyle Kessler (1) moves past Stonington’s Alex DePerry (14) during the ECC DII boys’ basketball final at Mohegan Sun Arena Tuesday, February 27, 2024. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Stonington’s Aaron LoPresto (1) puts up a basket against Wheeler’s defense during the ECC DII boys’ basketball final at Mohegan Sun Arena Tuesday, February 27, 2024. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Mohegan — Wheeler’s players made their way to the locker room but there were still cheers emanating from behind closed doors. A few quiet moments. Then more joyful noise.

    “Everybody’s smiling, everybody’s laughing, everybody’s crying,” Wheeler junior Zane Brewer said. “It’s a whole mix of emotions.”

    Second-seeded Wheeler, one of the smallest schools in the state, not only made it to Mohegan Sun Arena for the first time to play in Tuesday night’s Eastern Connecticut Conference Division II tournament championship game, the Lions left having formed a pile of bodies at midcourt while “We Are the Champions” blared throughout the arena’s rafters.

    Wheeler beat No. 1-seeded Stonington 65-51, riding the leads, the deficits and the ties to the title.

    Brewer was named Most Outstanding Player with 21 points, six rebounds and four assists and was joined on the all-tournament team by teammates Kyle Kessler and Deondre Bransford along with Stonington’s Robbie Scavello and Aaron LoPresto.

    Kessler had 19 points and six assists for Wheeler (17-6), which won the ECC Division IV title during the regular season, and Bransford had 16 points, 14 rebounds and three assists.

    Scavello had 17 points for Stonington (16-7) and LoPresto 15.

    Wheeler won Saturday’s semifinals 58-53 over Griswold, despite trailing by seven points late in the third quarter.

    “A lot of emotions,” Wheeler coach Stephen Bailey said Tuesday. “These guys are excited. They worked the last two years to get here. Last year’s loss to Killingly (in the ECC tournament semis), they did not get here.

    “To kind of get that Griswold win, that roller coaster on Saturday ... I think if we weren’t in that type of game on Saturday, we might not have been able to persevere to this point. We went down seven again and in that stretch in the third quarter where we just kind of took over, that was big.

    “That shows the mental fortitude of these young gentlemen.”

    Stonington used a 10-0 run to lead 14-10 after one quarter, erasing a 10-4 Wheeler edge early. The Bears got an offensive rebound by Alex Nowak to start the sequence, which included 3-pointers by Dylan Cimini and LoPresto.

    Wheeler tied things at 23-23 on a reverse layup by Brewer, prompting a Stonington timeout with 3:09 remaining in the second quarter. Stonington led by as much as 31-25 after back-to-back baskets by Scavello but Wheeler got a free throw and a 3 from Brewer to end the quarter with Stonington clinging to a 31-29 advantage.

    Brewer had 12 points in the first half for Wheeler. Scavello had 10 in the half for Stonington and LoPresto had nine.

    Wheeler took the lead to start the third quarter with scores by Bransford, Brewer and Bransford again, making it 35-31 in favor of the Lions before LoPresto broke the ice with a 3-pointer for the Bears. The score was tied three times in the third quarter, the final time at 39-39.

    Bransford then launched a 13-2 Wheeler run with a turnaround jump shot and the Lions ended the third quarter with eight unanswered points for a 52-41 lead, capped by a fast break layup from Bransford to beat the buzzer.

    “Well, this is something we’ve been wanting for years since we’ve been in elementary school,” said Brewer, a 6-foot-3 junior guard/forward who scored from the perimeter as well as driving to the basket. “It just feels amazing now we finally got it. I’ve been waiting for this night forever.”

    Bailey called Stonington’s trio of guards, LoPresto, Scavello and Alex DePerry “prolific.” He said it’s Wheeler’s goal to hold teams under 50 points.

    “They got 51 tonight,” Bailey said. “I guess that can be the only thing that’s upsetting. I’m going to let that one slide right now. ... We just had to be able to withstand those runs and understand that our defense is going to take us to the promised land.”

    Stonington came into the final having beaten Tourtellotte 76-64 in the semifinals.

    Stonington won its previous matchup with Wheeler 59-57 in overtime on Jan. 30.

    v.fulkerson@theday.com

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