Indians deny Gaels trip to playoffs

The end of the season did not go well for the Shelton boys basketball team, but no one can accuse the Gaels of not battling to the end.

With a Class LL state playoff berth on the line in its final regular season game, Shelton fell behind to host North Haven by 13 points in the first half, but came just a defensive rebound away from registering the comeback victory and sneaking into the state tournament for a second straight season.

Instead, North Haven’s Will Reaves erased a two-point Shelton lead by grabbing his own rebound on a missed 3-pointer, hit the putback while being fouled, and made the ensuing free throw with 39 seconds left to give the Indians the lead for good in a 60-54 victory over Shelton.

“We needed one more stop down there,” said Shelton coach Brian Gardiner, referring to the possession in which Reaves grabbed the offensive rebound and made the game-winning three-point play.

For Shelton, it was a disappointing end to a season that started out with plenty or promise. The Gaels were 5-3 overall, and 1-0 in the Southern Connecticut Conference’s Housatonic Division on Jan. 8.

Shelton would go 2-10 the rest of the season, including a five-game losing streak to end the campaign. The Gaels ended the season 7-13 overall, and 3-5 in the Housy.

“We’ve been struggling offensively,” said Gardiner of his team’s late slide, which included a season-low 30-point output in its penultimate game of the season, a 12-point loss to Hamden at home.

Shelton’s offensive woes continued in the first half against North Haven. The Gaels held a couple of early leads, but saw North Haven outscore them 25-12 over the final 16 minutes of the first half. The Indians took a 29-17 lead into halftime.

Shelton came out of the intermission energized.

A key spark was the insertion of seldom-used reserve Matt Brouillette into the lineup. Brouillette was both a rebounding and defensive force over the final 16 minutes, grabbing nine rebounds and hounding whichever North Haven player he was guarding.

“I knew we had to do something differently. Matt’s a real hard-nosed kid,” said Gardiner of Brouillette. “He sparked us. He doesn’t score a lot of points. He does it with his defense.”

With Brouillette in the lineup, the Gaels suddenly started to find their offensive form.

Ben Malay and Pat Murphy started making 3-pointers — five between them in the third quarter — and Shelton was suddenly back in the game.

By the end of the third, the Gaels had drawn even with the Indians on a Murphy 3-pointer, set up by a Brouillette offensive rebound to keep the possession alive.

North Haven, which had won its eighth game of the season to qualify for states the night before, opened the fourth quarter with a Reeves’ bucket.

But Malay (team-high 17 points) answered back 30 seconds later with a trey to give Shelton its first lead, 44-43, since the midway point of the first quarter.

North Haven went up by four points with 3:31 left, but Shelton’s Christian Federici (13 points, 15 rebounds) started to dominate the paint, scoring all of Shelton’s points in a 7-1 run.

Federici’s baseline layup off a Mike Davis (8 points) pass with 1:03 to go gave Shelton a 54-52 lead.

The lead ended up being short-lived, as Reeves answered back with his conventional three-point play off of an offensive rebound on North Haven’s next possession.

Shelton still had its chances, but a turnover led to two North Haven free throws with 27 seconds left, and a missed 3-pointer at the 14-second mark set up another North Haven free throw to make it a two-possession game.

The Indians added a breakaway layup in the final seconds.

Neither the North Haven game nor the last five games of the season ended the way Shelton wanted them to, but Gardiner was still proud of his club.

“We’ve been battling all year long,” Gardiner said. “They went out the way you’re supposed to, battling to the end.”