East Catholic boys stage epic comeback, repeat as state Division I basketball champion

Mar. 18—UNCASVILLE — Belief can be contagious.

Belief — defined in Webster's Dictionary as a state or habit of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing — is what the East Catholic boys basketball team had in its locker room at halftime Saturday night.

Belief even with having shot 0-of-9 from behind the 3-point arc and 7-of-30 (23.3%) overall.

And of those seven field goals, none of them were assisted.

Worry ... no problem.

"We were all like, 'OK, we're here, it's March' " East Catholic senior guard Luke Reilly Jr. said. "Players take over and let's see what we can do with it."

It's exactly what happened.

James Jones (24 points, 6 rebounds) and Preston Fowler (12 points) took over when it mattered most and an adjustment on defense would turn the tide as top-seeded East Catholic (26-1) rallied back from an 18-point second-quarter deficit for a 49-47 victory over second-seeded Northwest Catholic (22-5) to defend their Division I state tournament title.

"For James to get those critical buckets at the end that got us back into it and getting enough of stops, it was great." Reilly Jr. said.

East Catholic headed into halftime on a 6-0 mini-run that cut that 18-point deficit down to 12 at30-18.

Then came the adjustment on defense as the Eagles deployed a 1-3-1 zone trap.

That trap flustered Northwest Catholic.

"We just stuck to our principles way more," Reilly Jr. said. "We went into the zone, mixed it up and got the job done. Coach saved the day for us again."

The defense forced seven third-quarter turnovers. Many of those led to layups on the other end.

And it led to a pair of key runs.

Following two free throws from Landon Jemison (23 points) that put the Lions ahead 32-18, East Catholic scored the next seven points on a layup by Samson Reilly, putback from Robert Elliott, two free throws by Jones and a Reilly free throw made it 32-25 with 4:49 remaining in the quarter.

Jemison had an answer, scoring on an offensive putback.

It was a short-lived stoppage.

Back came the Eagles with 10 unanswered points in a stretch where Northwest Catholic had four turnovers in five possessions. Jones and Fowler combined on eight and when Fowler made two free throws with 39 seconds left in the third, East Catholic had its first lead of the night at 35-34.

Gianni Mirabello — son of Northwest Catholic coach John Mirabello — scored his only points on a 3-pointer with 17.8 seconds left that put the Lions on top 37-35 heading into the fourth.

"This was similar to a lot of big games we have," East Catholic coach Luke Reilly Sr. said. "We kind of get punched early, then we settle into it and have a level of perseverance that pays off at the end."

The Eagles scored 10 of the first 14 points of the fourth quarter with Fowler scoring on a fast break euro-step layup with 3:27 remaining to make it 45-41.

Game over? Not by a long shot.

The Lions came back from an unlikely source.

Six-foot-9 center Jack Nieradko — who had scored two points all night — made back-to-back 3-pointers as Northwest Catholic took a 47-45 lead with 2:08 left.

The Lions missed an opportunity to increase the advantage further but missed the front end of a 1-and-1.

Jones made a free throw to make it 47-46 and East Catholic forced a tie-up near midcourt and had the possession arrow in its favor. The Eagles took the lead for good on a layup by Jones with 56 seconds left.

Following a Northwest Catholic turnover, East Catholic called a pair of timeouts with the Lions trapping in an attempt to get a steal. Twice, the Eagles had free throws to extend the lead, but both saw a miss on the front end of a 1-and-1.

That set the stage for the Lions to take the lead. Northwest missed on a 3-point shot that went off the front of the rim and rolled out of bounds with around two seconds left.

The Lions fouled Jones with .8 of a second left and he hit the second for the final margin.

Northwest Catholic had one last chance. Nieradko caught a pass near the foul line, but the shot fell short as East Catholic could finally celebrate.

"We made some defensive adjustments and the game unfolded the way it did, thank God," Reilly. Sr said. "That kind of changed the tide of the game. We were tight in the beginning and they got a little tight in the end."

East Catholic has won all three Division I state tournaments — the Eagles also won in 2019 — with its eighth state title in program history. There were no tournaments in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID 19-pandemic.

The Central Connecticut Conference rivals had never played for a state championship.

Earlier this year on Valentine's Day, Northwest led at halftime 27-19 before East Catholic roared back for a 70-49 victory.

East Catholic, the No.1 ranked team in the state for most of the season, won all 26 games it played against in-state competition.

That 26th win was one for ages.

"These guys are the greatest," Reilly Sr. said. "They found a way to get it done. Players take over in these situations and they took over. Kept chipping away and found a way to win.

"I'm ecstatic. Everybody contributed, everybody chipped in. We needed all 19 guys in the program to do that. It's just magic."

NORTHWEST CATHOLIC (47): Landon Jemison 8 5-6 23; Gianni Mirabello 1 0-0 3; James Nieradko 3 0-1 8; Tanner Ostop 3 0-0 8; Badara Diakite 1 2-2 4; Ryan Tolliver 0 0-0 0; Liam Conklin 0 0-0 0. Totals: 16 8-11 47

Three-point goals: Jemison (2), Nieradko (2), Ostop (2), Mirabello

EAST CATHOLIC (49): Preston Fowler 4 4-4 12; Luke Reilly 1 1-2 3; James Jones 8 7-12 24; Robert Elliott 1 0-0 2; Samson Reilly 2 0-1 4; Raymond Rodriguez 1 0-0 2; Leondre Sanchez 0 2-2 2. Totals: 17 14-21 49.

Three-point goals: Jones.

NW CATHOLIC 22 8 7 10 — 47

EAST CATHOLIC 8 10 17 14 — 49