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    Tuesday, April 16, 2024

    Leadership of Wheeler’s Deondre Bransford brings him to ‘the biggest moment of his career’

    Wheeler’s Deondre Bransford, left, scores from underneath the reach of Stonington 6-foot-8 center Alex Nowak during the ECC Division II boys’ basketball tournament final at Mohegan Sun Arena on Tuesday. Bransford, an energetic senior, was named to the All-Tournament Team in Wheeler’s 65-51 win over top-seeded Stonington. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Wheeler head coach Stephen Bailey, back, hugs senior Deondre Bransford as they celebrate their win over Stonington in the ECC Division II boys’ basketball final Tuesday at Mohegan Sun Arena. The Lions will continue their “Cinderella Story” in the Division IV state tournament beginning Monday against Plainville. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Mohegan — An undersized center with a big-man’s mentality, senior Deondre Bransford perfectly encapsulated Wheeler pride in the Lions’ Eastern Connecticut Conference Division II tournament championship win against top-seeded Stonington on Tuesday.

    Despite matching up with Stonington’s 6-foot-8 Alex Nowak, Bransford showed tremendous heart, playing a massive part in the 65-51 victory.

    “I played exactly how I was supposed to play,” Bransford said. “I’m a six-foot center. They were clearly taller than me, but I don’t even look at it as a challenge anymore. I jump higher, I cause havoc, that’s what I’m meant to do in my role and that’s what I did tonight.”

    Confident words from the Division IV All-ECC first team selection, but Bransford put together an impressive performance to back it up.

    He finished the game, Wheeler’s first-ever appearance at Mohegan Sun Arena and first ECC tournament title, with 16 points, 11 rebounds, two blocks, and an all-tournament award. Although he made a couple of tough shots, he made his biggest impact on the boards and hustling on defense, “causing havoc,” as he said.

    His performance looks great on paper, but his effect on winning basketball goes far beyond the box score. Bransford’s constant communication on defense and vibrant energy throughout was crucial to the success of the Lions.

    Wheeler (17-6), the No. 9 seed, will open play in the Division IV state tournament at 6:30 p.m. Monday against No. 24 Plainville.

    Wheeler head coach Stephen Bailey, said: “Deondre’s the type of individual that takes it upon himself to be that vocal leader. Yes, he’s our ‘center,’ but he’s more than just that. He’s our propellant on defense and his communication really plays to our strengths. We live by ‘a silent defense is a bad defense’ and he’s the focal point of that.”

    Bransford’s reputation as a vocal leader carries well beyond the court, as he’s renowned among his Wheeler family for his outgoing personality. Wearing mismatched colorful socks paired with pink Way of Wade sneakers, Bransford is a character.

    “He’s always talking. It doesn’t stop here at the biggest moment of his career so far, it’s in practice, it’s in the semifinals against Griswold, it’s in timeouts. He never stops and we need that from our leader,” Bailey said. “It’s not in a rude way, but in a very professional, yet confident way. Like he never shies away from speaking up, but he’s never going to try to offend you in the process.”

    Despite being undersized for his position, Bransford knows how to maximize his strengths, and he does so by controlling the energy of the game for his team.

    Bransford is well-aware of the influence he has on his teammates, so he actively does his best to be an exemplary leader for his peers.

    “I love talking, I talk to everyone whether that be at school or in town; it doesn’t matter, I’m always talking,” Bransford said. “I know they trust me as a leader. I won’t lead them down the wrong path. I try to be that leader on and off the court, just constantly trying to be there for my guys as much as I can.”

    The love for his teammates and the camaraderie between the entire Lions program carries beyond the locker room. That was apparent on Tuesday as the Wheeler faithful packed Mohegan Sun Arena for the championship matchup. Even though Wheeler is one of the smallest high schools in the state, North Stonington showed up in maroon and white and the players reciprocated that energy.

    Bransford said: “We’ve never had an ECC championship or anything for that matter. There were no banners in our school really until we got here. I think the town was really waiting for this moment and we did our best to deliver for them.”

    Bransford described a recent incident, an argument with a referee that caused back-to-back-to-back-to-back technical fouls to be issued on the Lions, that he believes brought the team together even more.

    “We had all been playing together since middle school, we knew we had the talent. We never really had the togetherness to really do something though,” Bransford said. “Honestly, up until two weeks ago, we didn’t even have the togetherness to do something. Something clicked, we got four technicals in one game and really came together as a team because of it.

    “It was immature, and we probably shouldn’t have done that, but it really helped our team and I think it’s a big reason we’re here now.”


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