NEW BRITAIN - Construction on â€śThe Twin Towers,â€ť as people around the Innovation boys basketball program nicknamed them, began four years ago.
Thatâ€™s when 6-foot-6 senior Lenny Okonya and 6-foot-4 junior LJ Hazelwood first stepped on the court together.
The two first met in middle school, Okonya an eighth-grader, and there was an immediate connection on the court between the two. They continued to play year-round on the same AAU team, steadily evolving and developing their game, and as they kept maturing together, their chemistry grew as star players for the Ravens.
â€śHeâ€™s my best friend, I have to say,â€ť Okonya said of Hazelwood.
The two have what Hazelwood describes as a â€śfriendly rivalry.â€ť They guard one another in practice, getting into each otherâ€™s face and clapping, intensely challenging the other.
â€śWeâ€™re making each other stronger,â€ť Hazelwood said. â€śThereâ€™s no such thing as a foul in practice, you know what I mean?â€ť
â€śIn practice, we donâ€™t wanna lose to each other so all the drills are very competitive,â€ť Okonya added. â€śWe donâ€™t wanna lose to anybody. Weâ€™re always fiery at each other and go at it.â€ť
That competitiveness also extends to game day. During the regular season, Okonya and Hazelwood had a competition that ran throughout the 20-game schedule to see who could collect more rebounds, blocks and other hustle plays.
â€śItâ€™s just a friendly competition to push each other to be the best we can. Iâ€™m proud to say that I won in the regular season, 12-8,â€ť said Okonya, as Hazelwood smirked and nodded in regrettable agreement. â€śYou see how itâ€™s pretty even? Itâ€™s off and on. Itâ€™s just a great competition.â€ť
That competitiveness between the two has only helped their ascension in chemistry, one that has reached a peak in their final high school years. Okonya and Hazelwoodâ€™s on-court dominance has been at the heart of the meteoric rise of the Innovation program - one that has sprung up seemingly out of nowhere, having won zero games in 2014-15 before skyrocketing to 16 wins last year and 21so far this season.
â€śWeâ€™ve been able to grow with each other, and us growing together has helped everyone else be able to grow around us,â€ť Hazelwood said.
The two are built in a similar vein, feeding off each otherâ€™s mutual ability. Both are athletic and skilled enough to work defenders down low, disrupt passing lanes with their length and they are two of the best rim protectors in the area.
Having the two dynamic shot blockers is a key reason why Innovation has been able to build its program over the last few years behind a defensive identity. The Ravensâ€™ guards - such as Carlos Gonzalez, Armoni Alonso, Ramiesh Bogle and Lester Emanuel - are able to enforce their relentless, pressure-packed and ball-hawking defense with the two big guys cleaning things up behind them.
â€śUs having two big guys who work so well together, I think thatâ€™s a big piece [of our success],â€ť Innovation coach Matt Lance said. â€śIt allows our guards to pressure the ball. Our guards are great on the ball, but if you can pressure the ball knowing you have that behind you, it makes it easier to play an aggressive style of defense.â€ť
That combination of the guardsâ€™ belligerent harassment on the perimeter and in the Ravensâ€™ full-court press, plus Okonya and Hazelwood denying several shot attempts, was on display Thursday night in their dominant 63-36 victory over No. 16 Coventry (10-13). The win pushed No. 1 Innovation (21-2) to the Division V state tournament quarterfinals for the second straight year - against No. 9 HMTCA (15-7) at 6 p.m. Monday at Goodwin Tech High School.
The Ravens played what Lance designated â€śsome of our best defense of the seasonâ€ť in forcing 10 first-quarter turnovers (24 total turnovers) and shutting the Crusaders out in the first period. Innovation allowed just six points in the first half of a victory that exhibited two vital reasons as to how the program has been able to turn things around so quickly.
â€śThey bought into our defensive identity - our hustle, being physical, being relentless,â€ť Lance said. â€śThatâ€™s what itâ€™s been, and that takes time to develop when you donâ€™t have a culture for a program. It took us some time to build up culture, but I think itâ€™s there right now.â€ť
The other is balance in the Ravensâ€™ rotation, which also includes Clinton Allen, who gave the Ravens some big minutes in his first action since sustaining an ankle injury two weeks ago.
â€śItâ€™s funny because [Lance] always tells us when we play a team, they have to pick their poison because they canâ€™t shut all five of us down,â€ť Okonya said. â€śWeâ€™re dominant across the board, whoever we have on the court. If they wanna shut down our guards - Lester, Carlos, Armoni and Ramiesh - that me and LJ are gonna dominate down low. But if they wanna pack it in on us, we have shooters on the outside and people who can drive and dish, and weâ€™re able to make plays.â€ť
â€śIt all comes back to the chemistry,â€ť Hazelwood added. â€śWe all are making each other better. If weâ€™re getting collapsed on, we know we can trust each other to make a shot. Not every [team] can do that. Some people would try to take it themselves, you know what I mean? Thereâ€™s just this trust and this chemistry thatâ€™s built in throughout the years.â€ť
Zack Carpenter can be reached at (860) 973-1811 or email@example.com