NEW BRITAIN - With 17 seconds left in the fourth quarter of the CRAL Tournament semifinals, the Innovation boys basketball team had the ball and a three-point deficit to make up against Classical Magnet.
The Ravens battled back from a difficult first half offensively to lead late in the game and were now one shot away from forcing overtime.
Innovation head coach Matt Lance drew up a play for senior Gabe Matias, who received some of the heaviest defensive pressure of the game, to take the shot, or at least get the first touch. Upon inbounding the ball to Matias, he was met with a trap looking to get the ball out of his hands or force a turnover. Matias ended up finding fellow senior Mikey Blackman with plenty of room and he promptly drilled a 3-pointer that sent the game to overtime.
“We couldn’t get [Gabe] to get that shot open right away, but he did touch the ball,” Lance said. “By him touching the ball, I think he drew two defenders at him and left Mikey right open and Mikey just stepped up. I thought that was a great decision by Gabe because I feel like a lot of players would’ve forced that. Instead, he realized ‘I have two guys on me, let's get to my open teammate,’ and that was a really savvy play by Gabe to make.”
The Ravens went on to win 60-53 in the additional period and punch a ticket to the conference finals Saturday against undefeated Capital Prep. Innovation already lost to Capital Prep earlier this season, but showed a heightened basketball IQ since, especially in its postseason run, which will be key to landing its fourth-straight conference championship.
Innovation struggled early against Classical Magnet because there was not enough movement on offense. Players started looking for each other in the second half and senior Timmy Fraylon emerged as a versatile piece of the offense with his passing and scoring.
“We were too stagnant, everything on offense was too stagnant,” Lance said. “If what we wanted didn’t work out right away, it turned into one guy putting his head down and [trying to] score. I thought we were way more patient in the second half, we made a little decision to spread the floor out a little bit and I thought Timmy facilitating from the top of the 3-point line. He made some really good decisions there.”
Fraylon’s 16 points tied him with Blackman for the team’s scoring lead in this game, but his ability to handle the ball and distribute with his size from anywhere on the court made him very effective against Classical Magnet. His large frame attracted attention when he had the ball on the inside and he displayed good vision in finding his teammates. He also brought a strong rebounding presence and a feel for running the fast break.
“I saw from him, not just a certain intensity, but that was the best decision making he’s made all season,” Lance said. “The 16 points is great, but what Timmy didn’t do, Timmy didn’t turn the ball over. Timmy realized [he was] getting doubled [and should] get rid of the ball. He was sometimes almost like a point forward for us and I thought he made really good decisions from up top so I’m really happy with him, I’m really proud of him. Besides the points, these were the best decisions he’s made all season.”
Fraylon also brought enough energy for the whole team to feed off of. He was exuberant every time he scored and was fully ready to help his team in any and every way.
“It meant a lot because lately I’ve been in a big slump,” Fraylon said. “It felt good, not just for my buckets, it felt good when everybody scored.”
Finishing the job against Capital Prep on Saturday will be a mighty challenge for the Ravens, who fell by seven at home in their regular season matchup. High stakes games are often slower and more defensive, so Innovation will need to continue its trend of smart play and good decision making.
“It takes 32 minutes of focus, it takes 32 minutes of engagement,” Lance said. “It takes 32 minutes of defending very well, of boxing out every single time and not falling asleep because they’re a team that will take advantage of that every single time.”
A loss Saturday would end the Ravens’ reign of three consecutive CRAL championships, but this year’s team wants to silence anyone who did not think they had another one in them.
“It would feel really good to make everybody who doubted us to know that we’re here and we’re going to win another championship,” Fraylon said.
Matt Hornick can be reached at (860) 973-1811 or firstname.lastname@example.org