UNCASVILLE - Six years after construction on the Innovation boys basketball program began, senior Lenny Okonya stepped off the floor for the final time as a Raven and pointed at his ring finger, beaming toward fans sitting behind the team’s bench.
“We did it,” Okonya said. “We’re champions.”
The lightning-quick ascension of the Ravens’ program culminated on Sunday, as Innovation defeated Old Lyme 62-41 to win the Division V state championship at Mohegan Sun Arena.
“The project is complete,” said Okonya, whose team rose from winning two games during his freshman season, six in his sophomore campaign and 16 last season. “The foundation was made last year. We built the building this year, and we topped it off with everything else and with this game. It's all moving so fast. I don't even know where everybody is right now. I'm gonna have to go find them. When we all huddle up one last time, the atmosphere is gonna be intense, amazing and nothing like we've ever felt before.”
The top-seeded Ravens (24-2) won their first-ever state title by doing what they have done all year - forcing steals with pressure defense, getting consistent and sometimes intimidating rim protection, being aggressive on the boards and enjoying a balanced scoring attack.
Leading 30-23 at halftime, Innovation put the clamps down on defense even harder in the second half, allowing just nine points in each of the final two quarters.
The Ravens started the third period on an 8-0 run, forcing five turnovers and five straight missed shots as Old Lyme did not score until the 3:45 mark of the period.
That defensive effort helped the Ravens build a 12-point lead at the end of the third, as LJ Hazelwood scored 10 of his 14 points in the quarter on 5-of-6 shooting.
Innovation forced a steal on Old Lyme’s first possession of the half, and Hazelwood’s tip-in shot started the second-half run. He scored on back-to-back layups, and Lester Emanuel’s layup on a full-court pass from Ramiesh Bogle gave his team a 38-23 lead with four minutes left in the quarter.
Hazelwood then scored on another putback, and his stop-and-pop 10-footer in transition put the Ravens ahead 44-32.
Innovation broke free for more fast-break buckets in the fourth, and a 14-6 run was highlighted by Armoni Alonso’s “and-one” play and was capped on a pair of Bogle free throws for a 20-point lead with three minutes left that jump-started the Ravens’ championship celebration.
“[With] all the hard work we've been putting in all year, it was very emotional for us,” Bogle said. “I can't believe I'm a champion. It's very emotional because we were doubted all year. [People said] that we had an easy schedule. But as soon as the state tournament started, we played some very good teams, and we beat those teams to get here. This is for my mom. I know she'd be proud of me right now. We won. I'm very excited.”
Innovation tallied 11 steals as part of 21 forced turnovers and blocked nine shots. And after being outrebounded 25-12 in the first half by the third-seeded Wildcats (21-6), the Ravens controlled the glass in the second half, finishing with a 39-36 advantage on the boards while putting three players in double figures.
Emanuel led the Ravens with 15 points on 6-for-9 shooting and had two blocks. Hazelwood added nine rebounds, two blocks and two steals to go along with his 14 points on 7-for-9 shooting from the field; Okonya scored just five points, but racked up 12 boards and three blocks; and Bogle chipped in 11 points, four steals and two blocks while battling foul trouble for much of the game.
The Ravens trailed 10-3 midway through the first quarter, the first time they have seen a deficit this postseason since trailing in the opening moments of the quarterfinals against HMTCA. But they responded with a 9-0 run to close the quarter, as Carlos Gonzalez’s 3-pointer at the buzzer gave Innovation a 12-10 lead.
After the Wildcats tied the game at 13 on a layup by Brady Sheffield, Gonzalez buried a deep 3 for a 16-13 advantage at the 5:25 mark of the second quarter, and the Ravens led the rest of the way.
Raymond Doll hit a 3 for Old Lyme a minute later to cut its deficit to two, but Hazelwood’s quick dump pass set up an Okonya layup, and Okoyna later buried a 3 from the wing for a seven-point lead.
Bogle knocked down a corner trey with 1:45 left in the half to give the Ravens a 30-18 cushion, and they led by seven at the break.
After losing by two points in the quarterfinals last year to eventual state champion Cromwell, the Ravens used the heartbreaking defeat as offseason motivation.
“It fueled us so much because that experience, even though we didn't like it, we realized it helped us because we've been in the quarterfinals before,” Okonya said. “We've been in that situation where we knew what it felt like to lose, and we didn't want that feeling again.”
Okonya also believes that Innovation’s tight 42-38 win over Valley Regional in Wednesday’s semifinal game was a more draining experience.
“We knew the hardest part was to get here,” Okonya said. “We knew if we lost Wednesday it would all be over. We wouldn't get medals or anything so the fact that we made it here [it made this game easier]. We just played to our strengths, and we played free. We knew we could relax because there was nowhere else to go. It's the last game. It's the last one. We emptied the tank.”
Ravens head coach Matt Lance took over the program in its third year. He was an eighth-grade assistant when Innovation did not win a game in its second season. And now, his Ravens will raise a banner in their home gym to cap off a program-building legacy.
“At the end of the day, we know this is a basketball game,” Lance said. “Some of these kids have gone through things in their life that a basketball game can't even compare to. I told them, 'You've come so far. So many people would've already been knocked down. This is nothing. This is where you go and get something [special]. Your legacy's already intact. This is the cherry on top.'”
Zack Carpenter can be reached at (860) 973-1811 or email@example.com
NO. 1 INNOVATION 62, NO. 3 OLD LYME 41
At Mohegan Sun Arena, Division V championship
Old Lyme 10 13 9 9 - 41
Innovation 12 18 14 18 - 62
Old Lyme: Liam Holloway 0-1-1, Olin Fredriks 2-1-5, Brady Sheffield 4-1-11, Connor Hagan 1-1-3, Jack Bocian 0-0-0, Quinn Romeo 0-0-0, Raymond Doll 3-4-11, John Almy 0-0-0, Aedan Using 3-2-8, Jared Ritchie 1-0-2. Totals: 14-10-41.
Innovation: Armoni Alonso 2-2-6, Carlos Gonzalez 2-1-7, Lester Emanuel 6-3-15, LJ Hazelwood 7-0-14, Lenny Okonya 2-0-5, Charlie Lugo Jr. 0-0-0, Gabe Matias 0-0-0, Ramiesh Bogle 4-2-11, Alonzo Hill 0-0-0, Quron Martin 0-0-0, CJ Allen 2-0-4, Julian Figueroa 0-0-0. Totals: 25-8-62.
Three-point goals: Sheffield (O) 2, Doll (O), Gonzalez (I) 2, Okonya (I), Bogle (I).
Records: Innovation 24-2, Old Lyme 21-6.