Sunday, February 26, 2006

EO Smith Basketball update

I'm whatcha call 'old school'. I attended New Britain High School from '67 to '70 and New Britain and Pulaski High were statewide basketball powerhouses. More recently I've recruited players from the greater Region 19 area for Nutmeg State games basketball teams from a few years ago.

In the past week I've had the pleasure to watch some of the best high school basketball players in memory go at it. Windham beat EO Thursday in a thriller. And lots of my Nutmeg State players made me proud - I had friends on both sides at three levels.

But last night was a joy.

EO Smith(12-8) played East Hartford (18-1) in the first round of the CCC tournament games. The preface to this game is that East Hartford was led by Doug Wiggins a senior point guard who has committed to attending UConn. In CT high school basketball circles this is considered a BIG DEAL. Wiggins averages 40 points a game and these days that's also a BIG DEAL.

The game was played in East Hartford and EO came in pretty ragged. Anthony Raggi was sore from Thursday's game, Rob Cardinal was suffering from one thing or another, and Tyler McCollum had the mother of all head colds.

To add insult to this assortment of ailments, the game started and the referees called two quick ticky-tacky fouls on Ricky Simonsen who was guarding East Hartford's special talent, Doug Wiggins as if to pre-ordain this game The Doug Wiggins Shoot Around Evening.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the East Hartford coronation, EO Smith took the lead by one, two, or three points and refused to give it up. Wiggins had some flashy passes in the first quarter but East Hartford could not outscore EO.

There's nothing dramatic about Wiggins' stats, he scored his forty points for the game but that's boring and misleading stuff. Oh yeah, he had a very splashy dunk that capped a brief fourth period run for East Hartford when they charged to a five point lead that lasted about, um... a basketball minute.

The stars of the game, were guys who scored 13, 9, and 7. Ricky Simonsen controlled Wiggins game to inconsequential baskets. Ricky scored 13 points and played BIG - scored daggers at the foul line in the fourth period when East Hartford briefly made a run.

And then there's Anthony Raggi. Everybody who plays EO covers this guy like a glove. Anthony is one of the state's best (and wholly underrated point guards). Anthony played an outstanding game - I can't recall a single turnover for either Ricky or Anthony in a blizzard of double and triple coverages. But in the fourth quarter, the teams exchanging baskets in a neck-and-neck procession of tied scores, Anthony broke away to the corner, the pass was perfect, he set and nailed a three pointer that only in a long retrospect was the basket that broke the game open for EO.

Now, when I say 'broke the game open' you may think I'm implying that the floodgates opened. Sorry, no. East Hartford played hard to a tie game and then played hard to the end of overtime. But EO's interior defense just stifled drive after drive by Wiggins. I can't remember a hoop clanging as often from the efforts of one player as I listened to last night. Cardinal, Olander, and McCollum, Best, and Gross did something also no other team in Connecticut could do - they shut Wiggins down. And Wiggins was given opportunity after opportunity by sympathetic refs, teammates and a home crowd. They were all looking for the ice.

Tyler McCollum (dizzy from fighting a cold) provided the ice, sinking a free throw in the final seconds of an overtime that sealed an EO victory. Tyler, another EO senior, is also underrated in state basketball circles.

The final score was EO Smith 59, East Hartford 57. EO has a lot of heroes - coaches and players.

I happen to believe both Simonsen and Raggi are better ballplayers than Wiggins but that's just my druthers. Players who sacrifice their game to the team effort get more points in my book than fat-stat leaders.

The guy who deserves big kudos though is Doug Best. Doug is the prototypical blue-collar, lunch pail baller. He's the guy ever team needs who shows up, does the dirty work of boxing out, rebounding, and confounding the other team, and picking up the garbage points. For many games I have thought EO's big four of Raggi, Simonsen, Cardinal, and McCollum were playing at a very high level of sport, maybe as good as anyone in CT.

Lately, Doug Best has been ratcheting up his game showing up in points (9 last night) and rock solid defensive plays. East Hartford ran into a defensive wall and I'm guessing they are still wondering what happened.

Basketball Vocabulary Word of the Game; hubris

With almost a minute to go at half-time, the East Hartford coach allowed Doug Wiggins to just stand at mid-court and dribble standing still. East Hartford was down by three points and the lesson we were all going to be taught was that THE BIG STAR was going to put on a clinic.

So Anthony Raggi watched him dribble and the whole gym watched him dribble. Wiggins cleared the undersides of his shoes and Anthony didn't bite (he was supposed to rashly try and steal the ball). So Wiggins did it again slower, lifting leg, cleaning shoe bottom. Anthony didn't bite. Seconds slowly ticked away.

Okay, time for the big show. Shoes clean, dribble, dribble. Simonsen joins to double-team, Wiggins shoots...

Now for our elementary basketball vocabulary word of the day; CLANG!

One last thing. The best basketball in the State is being played east of the river. It's a secret. Windham and EO are loaded and reloaded for many years to come.

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