Stratford keeps eye on postseason

Playing a boys high school basketball team with the explosive quickness and running ability of Bridgeport’s Kolbe Cathedral is tough enough when you’re playing at full strength. Trying to do it with a roster depleted by injuries and sickness is yet another task.
Stratford High and head coach Paul Dudzinski found that out when the South-West Conference teams clashed at the Needham Gym in Stratford on Friday.
Stratford played without senior guard Bernard Brantley, who averages 17 points, for the sixth game. Brantley has a broken bone in his foot.
He was also without Sam Breiner, Arron Smith and Brian Lesparance. All three were sick.
Down 21-4 after one quarter in which the Red Devils committed 12 turnovers and had a difficult time getting the ball past half court, Stratford, behind 20 points and six 3-pointers from Evan Velleca, rallied but came up short, 76-73, in an exciting game.
“It’s nice that our kids came back, I’m really pleased about that,” said Dudzinski, who took a lengthy amount of time talking to his players as the team’s record dipped to 6-5. “But the bottom line is, we didn’t get it done. We’ve got to start winning some of these games.
“And, obviously, we can’t fall behind early like we did. You can’t give the ball to a team like Kolbe the way we did early tonight.”
Using full-court zone pressure, the Panthers literally ran the Red Devils off the court in the first eight minutes. Bullet-like passes and layups off the press were effective.
“This was an exciting game for our kids,” Kolbe coach Chris Smith said. “We played our best game of the year. It’s the kind of game you want to be in. Thankfully, we won. It wouldn’t have been great if we lost having that big a lead. It would’ve been bad.”
Velleca was the catalyst in the comeback, along with Marcus Vereen, Eric Rankin and Nick DiLulio.
“It presented us with an opportunity for other kids to step up,” Dudzinski said. “Evan Velleca is a junior varsity player. Look what he did tonight.”
Stratford outscored Kolbe, 25-16, in the second quarter, cutting the Panthers’ lead from 21 to 12 points.
“That’s all we wanted to do,” Dudzinski said. “Just try and cut it in half. We knew we couldn’t eliminate a 20-point deficit all at once.”
Putting together an 11-6 run at the start of the third quarter, the Red Devils trimmed Kolbe’s lead to 47-43 on a Velleca 3-pointer with a little over four minutes left in the session.
Entering the final quarter down 59-55, Stratford drew within three points, 63-60, in a lay-up by Vereen early on.
Kolbe stretched it out to six, 66-60 when Ian Gardner scored two of his 17 points on a shot from in close with 3:42 remaining.
The Panthers had two, six-point leads (69-63 and 72-66) on the strength of free-throw shooting before the Devils made their last run.
A 3-pointer by Velleca with 16 seconds showing made it 74-73. Forced to foul, the Devils sent Kolbe’s Chris Williams to the line with seven seconds left. Williams canned both and Kolbe had a 76-73 lead.
Stratford was unable to get Velleca open for a last-second 3-pointer. Instead, Vereen took the shot which went off the backboard and caught a part of the rim.
“We were trying to spread them out and look for an open shot,” Dudzinski said. “We got a shot, but it didn’t go.”
With 20 points, Velleca led his team which had four double-digit scorers. Vereen had 19, Eric Rankin 15 and DiLulio had 11.
Kolbe was led by Williams with 18 points and Gardner threw in 17.
Stratford made 25-of-49 attempts (51 percent) and Kolbe was 24-of-51 (47 percent).
The difference came at the free-throw line. Kolbe made 25-of-38 tries compared to 16-of-28 for Stratford.
Stratford won the battle of the boards with 41 to Kolbe’s 35. DiLulio was tops with eight, while Rankin had six and Anthony Monkovich and William Hudson five each.
The Red Devils were also hurt by turnovers. They had 26 for the game, with 17 of them coming in the first half.
It was Kolbe’s eighth win against three losses and put the Panthers into postseason play.
Stratford returned to the win column with a 56-54 road victory over Weston High on Tuesday night.
The Red Devils (7-5) led 12-10 after one period, 28-27 at the half, and 44-40 after three quarters.
Rankin scored 21 points and Velleca knocked down three 3-pointers and finished with 11.
Brantley returned to the court for the first time since Jan. 5 and scored seven points.
Weston (6-7) was led by Erik Dammen-Brower with 18 points.
Stratford lost to Kaynor Tech, 63-61, on Wednesday. Kaynor Tech is 10-1.
Vereen scored 16 points, Rankin 14 and DiIulio 11 for Stratford, which was tied at 13 after one period, trailed 30-23 at the half and 46-35 after three quarters.

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