WILTON - The New Britain boys basketball team went from the brink of elimination to the brink of a state finals berth thanks to a quick settling of the nerves.
Battling through a rough start and a hostile crowd in Friday night’s Division II quarterfinals matchup with No. 3 Wilton, the sixth-seeded Hurricanes committed seven unforced turnovers to help the Warriors build an early eight-point lead, as the home team’s rowdy student section that filled an entire section of the bleachers increased its decibels with each passing New Britain mistake.
If the game felt like it was slipping away before it began, head coach Kurt Reis shrugged it off and let his Hurricanes play through the rocky beginning, allowing them to find their composure on their own and ease into the flow of the game.
“I think playing on the road in this type of environment had an effect,” Reis said. “But I didn’t call a timeout. I let them keep playing. I felt like if it looked like I was panicking, they would panic.”
The team came back to the bench after the first quarter trailing by seven, and Reis still didn’t have a motivational message set up for his group. He didn’t need one. He simply motioned toward the scoreboard, which showed 23 points for Wilton, the most defensive-minded New Britain had given up in a quarter all season.
If the Hurricanes still felt a lingering sense of nervousness after the opening quarter, it quickly dissipated when they saw how their shakiness effected their play. The team had to ignore the crowd, the moment, the opportunity ahead of them, all of it. All that mattered was the game and the opponent in front of them.
“We didn’t expect them to keep up with us like that at first,” junior Tahmeen Dupree said. “But once we got comfortable, we were OK.”
New Britain eased into a sense of comfort by first acknowledging it wasn’t comfortable to start, and the only way to turn it around was to accept a simple truth: regain a sense of composure or watch the season slip away.
“We played through it,” Reis said. “These kids have a lot of fight.”
The Hurricanes came out of the first quarter on a 12-0 run before battling through a back-and-forth fourth quarter that came down to the final seconds. Had the first quarter version of New Britain been on the floor in crunch time, Wilton would have likely capitalized on mistakes and came away with a win. But this was a different New Britain team on the floor.
“We were a little jittery in the beginning, but we locked in from there and listened to our coaches,” senior Isaiah Jenkins said. “We just did what we had to do.”
One of those players to step up was senior Kaiyon Gunn, who missed the majority of the second and third quarters with four fouls after being overly aggressive on the defensive end for much of the first half.
With the game tied and less than 20 seconds on the clock, Gunn watched a lazy Wilton pass make its way along the top of the key. Some might have been hesitant to be aggressive with four fouls hanging over their head, but Gunn didn’t flinch, jumping out in front of the pass to pick it off and drive the length of the court to put home a layup and give the Hurricanes a 64-62 lead with 15 seconds left.
“He’s mentally tough,” Reis said. “He’s built for a game like that.”
The Hurricanes were built for a game like that, even if it took them a quarter to realize it. From timid to triumphant, New Britain is advancing to its first state semifinals since 2004 after conquering the opponent that really mattered: themselves.