STONINGTON — Stonington High’s boys basketball team prides itself on playing pretty good defense.
And it’s the man-to-man variety that has been the Bears’ trademark this season.
So, what did Stonington do when it trailed Old Saybrook by nine points at halftime of Wednesday’s Division IV second-round state playoff game?
It started the second half in a 1-3-1 zone.
The move allowed the Bears to get back in the game and was one of the big reasons Stonington topped the Rams, 54-49, in overtime.
The eighth-seeded Bears will next host No. 16 St. Joseph’s, a 74-58 upset winner over No. 1 Cromwell, on Friday at 7 p.m. in the quarterfinals.
Old Saybrook’s Shane Henderson, who has more than 1,500 career points, had put up 13 points in the first half, and fellow guard Davis Brown had 10 as the Rams led at the break, 29-20.
“I was very apprehensive at the half to go to [the zone] because it’s a make or break on your season,” Stonington coach John Luzzi said. “And then they hit a 3 right out of the gate, but then we got four turnovers and eight points. I will take that.”
Stonington (19-6) outscored the ninth-seeded Rams (16-7) 14-3 to open the third quarter to take a 34-32 lead. Copper Wall (nine points) hit two big corner 3s in the spurt. R.J. Parrilla (13 points) had a steal and layup and a putback for the Bears in the run.
But more important, Old Saybrook lost its offensive momentum — Henderson could not get to the basket against the zone, and the Rams started turning it over. Stonington outscored Old Saybrook 17-6 in the third quarter to lead 37-35.
“It pushed their shooters out and created a no-go zone for Henderson,” Luzzi said. “No more of that to-the-rim, flop-and-one [free throw]. And neither [Henderson nor Brown] like to go to the corners.”
Stonington installed the defense after losing to St. Bernard in the ECC D-II title game. Luzzi said his players told him they liked the 1-3-1 and felt comfortable playing it.
“Once we got that momentum and we were playing hard on the defensive side, it just transitioned to offense,” said Zach Scott, who also scored 13 points for Stonington.
Scott’s free throw with 28 seconds left in overtime gave the Bears a 51-49 lead. Jacob Geary (10 points) then blocked a shot by Henderson on a drive to the basket. Geary had four blocks and 10 points.
Scott came down with the ensuing loose ball and was fouled.
His two free throws with 13.1 seconds remaining gave the Bears a 53-49 lead. Scott also had a big basket in regulation, tying the game at 46 with 1:53 left on a strong move to the hoop.
“It’s just like practice. I tried to keep my calm and went with it,” Scott said of the big free throws.
Henderson was able to get off a long 3-pointer after the free throws, but it banked off the board and missed. Stonington’s Tyler Fidrych then made a free throw with 1.3 seconds left to end any doubt.
Not only did Stonington employ a seldom-used defense, the Bears played freshman forward Dorian White at the top of the zone. He has not seen many meaningful minutes this season.
“I was ready to go and I had to prove to the coach I was ready,” White said. “I have to stay in the middle and I have to make them throw lobs. We kept their shooters, No. 14 (Henderson) and No. 11 (Brown) in, and they couldn’t get off many shots.”
White also scored six points and converted a huge baseline drive with 3:44 left in regulation that tied the game at 44.
Luzzi was not surprised by the freshman’s poise.
“If you don’t know Dorian, [well] nothing fazes him, nothing,” Luzzi said. “You could put him in an arena with 50,000 people and tell him to play hard and he would.”
Stonington played the final 2:12 of overtime without Parrilla, the team’s senior leader, who fouled out.
“To win it without our floor general was crazy. I couldn’t be any prouder,” Luzzi said.
Brown finished with 21 for the Rams, including a couple of huge 3s in the fourth quarter. Henderson had 18, just five in the second half.
Now, Stonington turns it attention to St. Joseph’s, one of the state’s marquee athletic programs.
“They notoriously have a monster program,” Luzzi said. “But Friday night we are just going to go at it as hard as we can.”