If there’s one lesson a fan can take away from Middletown’s 63-59 loss to Tolland in the Blue Dragons home opener Tuesday night, it’s that a team can’t win if it doesn’t play with superior fundamentals. It’s awesome if your team to controls the boards with ease. It’s even better if your top player, senior Mikie Rhodes, supplies 24 points and 17 rebounds and leave his all on the court. But an advantage in one or two areas of the game doesn’t make up for a lack of perimeter defense, offensive execution or composure. The winning formula was absent for Middletown in a defeat that dropped the team to 2-2 on the season. Tolland is now 1-1.
The inconsistent play of the Blue Dragons was on display from the opening tip. They were only trailing by one point at the end of the first quarter but quickly fell further behind as the first half continued and outside shots weren’t falling. Meanwhile, Tolland players repeatedly scored on open layups off of beautifully executed cuts, and made the same outside shots Middletown was missing. It didn’t matter that Middletown was grabbing rebounds left and right if the squad couldn’t take full advantage of them.
After going into halftime down six, the Blue Dragons put together a strong comeback effort throughout the second half. Middletown’s superior speed and strength slowly but surely wore down their opponent and caused them to have a number of poor offensive series. All the momentum was going Middletown’s way, and when they pulled to within one at 56-66 with three minutes remaining in the fourth a win seemed inevitable.
However, Tolland kept going back to the same style of play that had worked for them all game in the closing minutes, and that style continued to pay off. Tolland executed a few backbreaking layups as the clock ticked down and put pressure on the Blue Dragons with their crisp passing and smooth flowing offense. They frequently coaxed Middletown into fouling and made their shots at the line. Tolland gave Middletown little room for error as it made its comeback, and ultimately there just wasn’t enough of it.
Middletown did not execute well enough in the closing five minutes to ever grab the land and completely establish control. The squad failed to deny penetration to Tolland on offense and was forced into committing reckless fouls as a last resort. Even as the Blue Dragons grabbed nearly every rebound in site, they were unable to convert a significant amount of their second-shot opportunities. Most glaringly, Middletown struggled at the line down the stretch and shot just 5-10 from the charity stripe for the contest. After closing to within one, the Blue Dragons allowed Tolland to convert on a three-point layup, and would only score one more field goal, going on to lose by four.
Shawn Strickland had 12 points and five assists, and Taji Owens pulled down 16 rebounds for Middletown. Overall, the Blue Dragons committed 19 turnovers while only earning 9 assists.
Taylor Fortin scored a team-high 19 points for Tolland. Teammate Brad Smith added 16, and Matt Grospitch scored 15.
“Tolland is a very patient team. They run their offense and don’t take bad shots,” said Head Coach Dave Sytulek. “We tried to pick up our defensive intensity in the second half but just ran out of time. I hope this loss taught us that we need to come out with that intensity at the very start of every game.”
Middletown will host Pomperaug Thursday.