The Berlin boy's basketball team stared a quick one-game elimination right in the face and said "not tonight."
The Redcoats fell behind 5-4 three minutes into the game and visiting Naugatuck led 21-8 with 24 seconds left in the first quarter. Berlin proceeded to trail the entire game until a furious comeback in the fourth quarter allowed it to take back the lead, which it never surrendered, with 1:47 left in the game.
Berlin outscored Naugatuck 21-8 in the fourth quarter to beat the Greyhounds 62-57 in the first round of the Class L state tournament. With the win, Berlin advances to the second round for a date at Branford Wednesday.
"We usually win ugly but this one was uglier than most," Berlin coach Mike Veneziano said. "Our kids played hard but we turned the ball over too may times in the first half. We hit big shots. They've got guts, every one of them."
Berlin had seen Naugatuck play but was surprised by the play of some of their personnel. Junior center Brandon Kuczenski, 6-foot-5, was a force inside for Naugatuck. Lanky Husani Foote, who bears a resemblance to Kevin Durant and wears his number, 35, also made some nice drives to the hoop and made shots.
"Number 35 surprised us and so did their big kid," Veneziano said. "We wanted to pressure their guards and sag off number 35 but he hit some shots from the outside and that made them go."
Naugatuck hit four three-pointers in the first period in taking a 21-10 lead. A dunk by Foote gave Naugy a 25-16 lead midway through the second quarter but from there Berlin went on an 11-1 run led by Colin King. Were it not for King, Berlin might have not been within shouting distance but the senior hit two three-pointers and a tough lay-up for eight of his 12 points in the second period. A Bobby Mozzicato three-point play tied the game at 26 but Naugatuck responded with the last six points of the half to lead 32-26 at halftime.
Berlin got as close as two points three times in the third period but Naugatuck closed the quarter with an 8-3 run and led 49-41 going into the final quarter.
From there it was big shot after big shot for the Redcoats and the Gibney Gymnasium was rocking thanks to the Red Sea student section.
Naugy led 52-45 with 5:34 left in the game when Tyler Stritch hit back-to-back three-pointers for the Redcoats to make it 54-51. Darren Gilbert, who struggled with his ball handling in the first half, hit a three to give Berlin the lead at 56-55 with 1:47 left. Gilbert hit one of two free throws for a 57-55 lead with 1:17 left. Naugatuck guard Gabe Pulliam elected to take a deep three-pointer, which missed. One free throw made it 58-55 with 43 seconds left. A Charleson Pernell hoop closed it to 58-57 with 22 seconds left but Berlin held on with a 4-for-4 performance at the free throw line by Gilbert.
"Darren has hit a bunch of big shots for us so I'm not surprised when he makes one," Veneziano said. "Almost every time he shoots I'm nervous but it doesn’t surprise me when it goes in. I yell at him more than anyone but he takes it and just keeps working."
Mozzicato led Berlin with 17 points, followed by Gilbert with 15. King added 12 and Stritch had nine points on three three-pointers.
Foote led Naugatuck with 15 while Pernell and Kuczenski added 13 each and Andrew Nevaski 10.
Mozzicato said he thought this might be the last game of his career at one point during the game.
"When we were down 49-41 I thought we might be in some trouble but I love the kids on this team and we didn't turn the ball over and made some big shots so that helped us to the win," he said. "We have been in a lot of close games so we're used to it. We feel comfortable playing in close games. We'd love to blow someone out but we don't get rattled when it's close.
"It was a great atmosphere tonight. There was one point in the fourth quarter where the parents were going crazy and then the Red Sea was going nuts. It was awesome."
Branford beat Woodstock academy 52-40 in the first round so 12th seed Berlin travels to fifth seed Branford Wednesday night.