STONINGTON — When it was over, after St. Joseph's boys basketball team, its cheerleaders and fans had finished their wild celebration at center court, Stonington High coach John Luzzi stood expressionless in front of the scorer's table, staring blankly into the stands with his hands on top of his head.
The Bears' season had ended after two overtimes Friday night, 69-67, in the quarterfinals of the state Division IV tournament at a packed, loud Stonington gym.
"Just the finality of it," Luzzi explained. "The unfortunateness of it. Just the fact that it's over. We truly believed we had a championship team, and we just showed how close we can get to it. It's just so unfortunate. I just feel so bad for the guys."
Stonington had its chances.
In the second overtime, Bears senior center Jacob Gary scored from down low on an assist from senior guard R.J. Parrilla to tie the game at 67 with 1:10 left. St. Joseph, a Fairfield County Interscholastic Conference (FCIAC) team from Trumbull, held the ball until finally getting it back into the hands of its best player, Stephen Paolini, who had begun the possession with control of the ball.
The 6-foot Paolini, a left-hander who finished with a game-high 29 points, drove to the basket, was fouled and calmly sunk both free throws with 3.8 seconds remaining. The Bears, who had to go the length of the floor, got a decent look at a wing 3-pointer as time expired, but it missed.
"He's an all-conference player from one of the toughest conferences in the state," Luzzi said of Paolini. "We held it away from him until the seven-second mark. Then unfortunately we got caught up a little bit. The worst part of it is he got it going left. ... And unfortunately we had to foul him or it would've been a wide-open layup. But at least we made him earn it.
"In the end we got a good look. We just came up short."
The surprising Cadets (14-10), the tournament's 16th seed, advanced to the Division IV semifinals. No. 8 Stonington ended its season at 19-7, winning two state tournament games for the first time since 2011.
"Just a hard-fought game, back and forth," St. Joseph coach Kevin Wielk said. "It was gonna come down to the last possession, who had it. They had a chance to win, and they got a good look at it."
Paolini gave the Bears fits all night with slashes into the middle of the their zone defense (1-3-1 and 3-2), sinking mid-range jumpers and converting putbacks. He had 13 two-point field goals and was 3 for 5 from the line on the night.
After Parrilla's steal and layup gave Stonington a 54-52 lead with 47.5 seconds left in regulation, the Bears missed a free throw that could've put them up by three. Paolini then responded by driving through the middle and scoring on a tough layup to tie it at 54 with 30 seconds remaining.
The Bears held the ball for the last shot, but a drive down the lane and an attempted runner missed, sending the game to overtime.
In the first OT, with the score tied at 61, Geary, who had a monster game with 21 points, 20 rebounds and three blocked shots, scored on a putback to give the Bears a 63-61 lead with 34.7 seconds left. After a St. Joseph timeout, Brendan Kade's 3-pointer went in and out, another Cadets player had a potential tip-in miss, then Paolini came to the rescue, scoring on a putback to tie it back up with 14.4 on the clock.
"He's a leader on this team," Wielk said. "He makes us go. He has a motor that doesn't stop."
Stonington again had a chance to win it, but a deep 3-point attempt at the buzzer missed, setting up the second and final overtime.
As exemplified by the two extra periods, the teams were evenly matched. The lead for either team was never more than five points, the last of which came when Paolini hit a 12-footer with less than three minutes left in regulation to put the Cadets up 48-43.
Junior Zach Scott finished with 22 points for Stonington, and Parrilla had 16 points, nine assists and six steals.
"Right now we all just feel that initial shock that it's over, but we can look back on this and think we did something amazing: We got the community to believe in Stonington basketball again," Parrilla said. "I've never seen the gym like that in four years, maybe more. We fought to the very end. I'm proud of each an every one of my teammates and I couldn't have asked for more."
"Someday they'll benefit from this, the younger guys," Luzzi said. "They'll win a game like this because of this team."