Stamford boys basketball riding defensive intensity to fast start to season

Walking into the last 30 minutes of practice for the Stamford boys basketball team, one is greeted with a wall of sound upon entering the gymnasium.

The sound is pumped in fan noise coming through speakers used to simulate rowdy crowds as players shoot free throws.

The players say practicing with the noise helps simulate game environments on the road.

“These type of practices help when we get in front of crowds,” Stamford senior captain Lukas Sotell said. “Just hearing that noise while we are shooting free throws helps us focus. North Haven was our first away game and the crowd was really loud. This helps us prepare for that by practicing in this environment.”

Whether it is the assimilation to crowd noise or something else, the Black Knights are off to a 5-1 start after beating McMahon 59-54 Tuesday night.

Ask anyone associated with the team and they all say it is the commitment to defense which has made the biggest impact early on.

“Our offense has been working but the offense would never be able to get going without our defense,” senior captain Jack Stokes said. “We get a lot of points off of transition offense. We are a fast group of guys and we like to get after it on defense to make points on the offensive end.”

The Black Knights have only allowed one team over 60 points once this season and that was in a 61-46 loss to Kolbe Cathedral, the only blemish on their record.

That commitment to defense-first basketball began this past offseason when the Black Knights brought in a coach with a history of winning in the city in Jeff O’Connell, who formerly coached at Rippowam and Westhill.

“At the end of last season we made defense our primary focus. A mentor of mine, Jeff O’Connell, who coached at Rippowam and Westhill, came in to help,” Stamford coach Dan Lauture said. “He ran all of our offseason stuff and he taught them defense from A-to-Z and it has translated on the court. I give hm credit for doing that because our defense has been the key to much of our early season success.”

That defensive mindset shows up in practice where players grind through drill after drill to improve on that side of the ball.

Lauture said while the whole team has bought into the defensive approach, none have embraced it as much as senior Malik Rivers.

“I had to work on sliding my feet, staying in front of the player and beating him to the spot. That’s not fun, that’s all work. I am happy to be 5-1 but we have to keep working to try and get where we want to get,” Rivers said. “Since I started my high school career I have picked up my defense more and more. It’s the most important thing in the game. I started to pick it up and try to master it so I could help my team win. If we play hard defense that leads to fast breaks and easy baskets.”

The commitment to putting in work that might not always be fun has the team believing.

“I think we can play even better. If you want to be great, you have to come to work hard,” Sotell said. “If you want to be mediocre, coach says we can just come in and shoot around but that won’t make us better. We have to do stuff that you don’t want to do. We all hate doing defensive slides but you got to do it.”

The first indication Stamford might be of the teams in the FCIAC pushing for a league playoff spot came when it knocked off St. Joseph, a team many people thought belonged in the top 10 in the preseason.

Then came a 53-39 victory over rival Westhill on the road and as the wins came, so did increased confidence.

“We have felt good about the games we have played,” junior captain CJ Portuondo said. “We have to get off to fast starts. When we can do that we play much better. We have been passing well and have been consistent at getting fast breaks. The biggest challenges facing us is that we don’t have much height on our team. We use our speed to go around people, we pass the ball well and we have good shooters on our team.”

Despite being a junior, Portuondo was named a captain by his teammates because of the leadership he has shown.

He is also a talented player and like the rest of the team, has picked up his defense.

“CJ is very gifted offensively but getting him to turn it up another gear on defense was one of things we were looking for,” Lauture said. “He has accepted every challenge from hammering out his schoolwork to carrying out instructions on the court. He has answered the bell.”

Along with Portuondo, Rivers and Sotell sophomore Joseph Salvatore has been starting at point guard and freshman Ejai Presley has given the team valuable minutes.

Lauture said the seeds of the success came in the form of the team bonding not just over basketball but also over academics.

“The study halls we have been having since the fall has really built our team camaraderie,” Lauture said. “They meet three or four times a week since September. Kids come in after school, do their schoolwork, get meals and then we lift after. It has translated to success in the classroom and success on the court. It has been a really strong effort from everyone to do that.”

“I care about who we are as people and I want them to make the right decisions in all aspects of their lives. I really want them to get it done in the classroom because that’s the reason why they are here. They are not here to play basketball, they are here to get an education. That’s the number one thing we try to teach them. If they work hard, the rest will take care of itself.”; @EricsonSports