Stratford High boys basketball coach Paul Dudzinski has been trying to put his finger on it all season long.
He’s been trying to read the pulse of his Red Devil team, which had a good chance to upset a Kolbe Cathedral of Bridgeport squad Saturday night in a game played at the William Pitt Center at Sacred Heart University.
A poor third quarter was the team’s downfall this time, as the Red Devils lost, 61-52, to the Cougars who gained their 11th win in 14 starts and will be one of the favorites in the upcoming South-West Conference playoffs.
“Our season is getting shorter and shorter,” Dudzinski said. “I still think we have some good basketball to play. But, we’re running out of runway. Again, I still don’t think that this plane hasn’t flown its best flight yet.”
The Red Devils earned a spot in the state tournament with a 74-49 home win over Immaculate of Danbury on Tuesday.
Eric Rankin scored 22 points and Marcus Vereen scored 20 points, assisted on four baskets, and added three steals.
Bernard Brantley had 15 points, five rebounds and four assists.
In its second meeting in eight days with Kolbe (the Red Devils lost 76-73 to the Cougars on Jan. 25), Stratford got the start it wanted.
The Red Devils trailed by a point, 13-12, after one quarter, and were down by only seven, 30-23, at halftime.
During the second quarter, Stratford took a 14-13 lead on a basket by Rankin and went up by two after Vereen made one-of-two free throws.
From there, Kolbe went on a 9-0 run to take a 24-15 lead before winding up seven points up at quarter’s end.
After Brantley scored at the start of the third quarter to cut Kolbe’s lead to five, the Red Devils went on a dry spell and were outscored 15-0 over the next five-plus minutes.
“It’s hard to figure out,” Dudzinski said. “We should’ve come out fired up. Instead, we’re too laid back. Against a team like Kolbe who’s aggressive and athletic, you simply can’t do that.”
Down 47-29 going into the final quarter, Dudzinski employed a trapping zone defense, but the Cougars forced fouls and went to the line 15 times in the final eight minutes.
They converted on 11 of them. Kolbe made only two field goals in the quarter.
“Every time we play Stratford, they give us a tough game,” Kolbe coach Chris Smith said.
“You start to think that maybe you’ve got them beaten and they throw a press at you and find a way to get back in the game.”
The difference for the Cougars was 6-foot-5 forward Ian Gardner, who scored 25 points. Included in the mix was a pair of three-point shots.
“We open in a zone and Gardner gets the ball outside and scores,” Dudzinski said. “That’s one of the reasons why they’re a very dangerous team.”
Dudzinski had a full contingent of players available to him, including Brantley, a high-scoring senior who finished with 17 points.
Brantley, who also led the Red Devils in rebounding with 10, got scoring support from Vereen and Rankin.
Both players scored 14 points and Will Hudson, who had four rebounds, scored eight points.
“Our focus right now is Immaculate (who the Red Devils played on Tuesday night) and Masuk,” Dudzinski said. “We’ve got to stop putting ourselves in a hole by falling behind early. My message to these guys is, we haven’t played our best basketball yet.”
Stratford was 18-of-47 (38 percent) for the game from the floor. The Cougars were 19-of-34 (55 percent).
The biggest difference came at the foul line, where Kolbe made 28 trips and Stratford visited it on 16 occasions.
Kolbe held a 32-30 rebounding edge, as Chris Smith had nine and Gardner seven. Kolbe had 20 turnovers to Stratford’s 19.
Stratford High dropped a 45-40 decision at Bethel High on Friday night, as the Wildcats improved to 14-2.
Brantley scored 19 points to lead the Red Devils, who were tied 12-12 with the Wildcats after one period and trailed 24-18 at the half.
Rankin scored nine points.
Feb. 8 at Masuk, 7
Feb. 12 Newtown, 7
Feb. 15 at Pomperaug, 7
Feb. 19 Oxford, 7