The Shelton High boys basketball team had more than enough reasons to come out strong against visiting Cheshire High on Friday night, when the Gaels dominated the Rams in the first half and withstood a Cheshire comeback in the third quarter to post an impressive 74-56 win.
The victory puts Shelton (7-8) one game away from a state tournament berth.
It was also especially uplifting because the game was part of the American Cancer Society’s Coaches vs. Cancer program, and was a tribute to assistant coach Joe LaPorta’s wife, who died of cancer two years ago.
“They played the best game of their lives,” said Shelton head coach Brian Gardiner. “Coming into this game, I told them I would coach the best game of my life, so long as they played the best game of their lives and they just rose to the occasion.
“This is a great event for the American Cancer Society and we dedicated this game to Coach Laporta’s wife. We were inspired by that so I couldn’t be prouder of all these guys. They played a hard team. They withstood the runs and the pressure. Everyone played awesome tonight.”
Senior co-captain Benjamin Malay (16 points) spurred the Gaels to a hot start, while senior co-captain Craig Packnick (12 points, nine rebounds) and junior Christian Federici (21 points, 13 rebounds) stymied a ferocious rally by Cheshire (7-7) to cement the win.
Gardiner was vocal and animated on the sideline and his team responded, as the Gael’s jumped out to a 5-0 lead with an aggressive baseline drive by Federici and a net-snapping 3-pointer from Malay.
The Rams fought back, but Shelton pounded the middle with a slashing basket from Mike Davis and a sharp inside assist from Packnick to Matt Brouillette for a 12-6 Shelton lead.
The Gaels kept an 18-13 advantage at the end of the first quarter, with a 3-pointer and breakout hoop by freshman Casey Belade (12 points).
Cheshire cut the lead to three points to start the second quarter, but it was the closest the visitors would ever get.
Malay hit a 3-pointer to spark a 20-1 run that was fueled by a commanding performance on the boards from Packnick and Federici.
The front court duo each posted inside hoops during the run, while Malay swished another basket from beyond the arc and received a slick inbound pass from Brouillette to give the locals a 38-16 lead going into halftime.
“We knew we had the height advantage, but Packnick and Federici don’t always go after the ball like they did tonight,” Gardiner said. “We tell them that there is no reason to not go after it because they are the two biggest guys on the floor.
“Federici is way above the rim and he’s figuring it out, so it was just great to see him play that well tonight.”
Shelton extended the run to start the third quarter with another 3-pointer from Malay and a foul shot from Federici.
Cheshire fought back with a string of four 3-pointers, but Federici helped the Gaels hold their ground with three putback hoops to keep the Shelton advantage at 52-32 with three minutes left in the quarter.
The Rams hit two more deep shots down the stretch, but Shelton continued to withstand the onslaught with a 3-pointer from Malay and a foul shot by Federici that gave the Gaels a 55-43 lead at the end of the third.
Federici showed that Shelton’s dominance in the paint wasn’t going to fade in the final quarter, as he tipped in a missed foul shot by Davis to give the home team a 58-43 lead in the opening minute.
Cheshire looked to get back into the game with aggressive drives to the basket, but Shelton answered back with inside scores from Federici and Packnick off assists from Malay.
Packnick effectively salted the game by converting two fouls shots and banking in a close hoop to give Shelton a 68-49 lead with three minutes left.
“I hope this is a launching pad, because Cheshire is very, very good and we couldn’t have asked for a better performance here,” Gardiner said. “Everyone hustled and played hard. Everyone contributed and I was very proud of them.”