NORTH STONINGTON — Perhaps no Wheeler High boys basketball player embodies the team's David vs. Goliath underdog mentality more than 6-foot junior Deondre Bransford.
Bransford plays the center position for Wheeler under first-year coach Stephen Bailey, who left his Lyman Memorial head coaching post to work at the North Stonington school where he is a physical education teacher. Bailey, an undersized center himself at 6-2 or so for Stonington 15 years ago, is quite a bit taller than Bransford.
But Bransford came up big Wednesday in a CIAC Division V tournament second-round game. He scored 10 of Wheeler's final 14 points to finish with a game-high 18 in the Lions' 55-51 win over Stafford in a packed Wheeler gymatorium.
The fifth-seeded Lions (17-6) continue their most successful season in recent memory on Friday at No. 4 Portland in the quarterfinals — Wheeler's first state quarterfinal berth since 2007. Game time is 7 p.m.
"Deondre is undersized and will be in every matchup coming in at about 6-foot," Bailey said. "But he works hard every day, believes in the system and believes in me and has that piece to him that we will beat you with heart over height."
With Wheeler trying to hold on to a 43-33 lead early in the fourth quarter, Bransford came through with huge play after huge play, hustling and firing up his teammates with passion. His two free throws put Wheeler ahead 45-37 with 2:33 left.
After some quick Wheeler shots and turnovers helped No. 21 Stafford (11-13) go on a 9-0 run — the Bulldogs took the lead on Collin Gudeman's three-point play with 1:24 left — Bransford made a backcourt steal after a Lions miss and sank a layup to give Wheeler a 47-46 edge with 1:20 to go.
Gudeman's basket with 55 seconds left put Stafford up 48-47, but Wheeler answered when Zane Brewer made a steal and fed Bransford with an outleft pass for three-point play and 50-48 lead when it looked as if Bransford was cornered under the basket.
Kyle Kessler then forced a turnover, leading to another Bransford free throw with 23 seconds left. After Stafford missed a 3-pointer, Brewer (11 points) sank two from the line with 12 seconds remaining for a 53-48 margin.
Wheeler doesn't feature a single senior on the roster. The junior tandem of Bransford and Brewer combined to make 8 of 10 free throws in the fourth quarter.
"We're a team without a senior but we've played together since we were 5 years old growing up," Bransford said. "Pressure has always troubled us for 10-plus years. We've finally been able to move forward and stay poised at the end of the game. Coach Bailey has been great for us, the best we can ask for. He pushes us in practice and holds us accountable every day."
One of Bailey's focal points is to start fast in each quarter. The Lions did just that, bolting to an 8-0 lead to start the game and, after trailing 20-19 at halftime, surging to a 27-23 lead in the third quarter.
Kyle Montigny gave Wheeler a lift off the bench with six points. Keith Zardies joined Bransford and Brewer in double figures with 10 points.
"Our composure at the end of the game and the fact we didn't get flustered at the end against a team of all seniors showed the maturity of this team," Bailey said. "It was a very hectic game. At tournament time, it's not how you win but just that you win. Collectively down the stretch we executed enough and hit eight clutch free throws to win."
Wheeler's next opponent, Portland, plays in the Shoreline Conference. The Highlanders (18-6) put together an eight-game winning streak during the regular season and have won four of their last five, including a 67-46 Division V second-round win over No. 20 Wolcott on Wednesday. (They, like Wheeler, had first-round bye.) Bailey is familiar with Portland coach David Bradbury.
"David played for my mentor (former East Lyme coach) Jeff Bernardi when he coached at Valley Regional," Bailey said. "I started as an East Lyme assistant and know a lot about Bradbury. It will be a a great matchup and I'm very excited."
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