When Southington's Jordan Chapman took an alley-oop pass from Drew Aylett and put in a finger roll to cut Cheshire's lead from what had been 10 in the third quarter to three in the fourth, it was clear the momentum was changing.
And when Alex Borofsky made a layup off a fast break to give the Blue Knights their second lead of the fourth quarter, the sense was they weren't giving it up. They didn't.
Southington held off Cheshire down the stretch, hitting five of six free throws in the final 1:44 to take a 57-53 CIAC Class LL first-round game at Southington High School Monday night.
Southington (16-7) moves on to play at Holy Cross-Waterbury in the second round Wednesday at 7 p.m. Cheshire finishes at 13-10.
"Coming back from last year with that tough loss to Torrington (69-63 in the first round), it was good to come out and get a win for our program," said Southington's Sal Romano, who scored a game-high 17 points and added eight rebounds and four blocks. "Now we're 0 and 0 again, now we're going to take it one game at a time. Holy Cross is good team but so are we.”
"We fell a little short tonight but I don't think that is because they weren't at their best," Cheshire head coach Dan Lee said. "They took good shots that didn't go in and the other team capitalized. ... We knew sooner or later they were going to go to Romano and he's able to establish position and take advantage of that. We always want games to come down to the last four minutes and it sure did. We just wish we were on the winning end of it."
After falling behind 7-2 in the first minute and a half of the game, Cheshire went on a 10-0 run to take a 12-7 lead and finished the first quarter up 21-19. The Rams had explosive first-half offensive efforts from seniors Greg Leonetti (11 points), Nate Trumbo (nine on three three-pointers) and Justin Zovas (eight points).
Leonetti also made three steals to help propel the Rams' offense off its defense and 6-foot-9 junior center Nate Howard made three of his eight blocks.
Meanwhile Southington was ice cold, shooting 10-for-34 from the field in the first half and Chapman (11 points) sat out much of it in foul trouble.
Cheshire added to its lead in the third until it reached 42-32 on Max Bailey's three-pointer, one of his three in the second half, with 2:04 left in the quarter. That's when Southington started turning it around.
"We settled down," Southington head coach Bob Lasbury said. "We made some awfully silly mistakes. Poor communication in the first half defensively. Once we settled in, we were able to get some stops and get out in transition. It's a credit to Cheshire's defense, but also we rushed some shots (in the first half)."
The Blue Knights put together a 13-2 run from the last two minutes of the third to early in the fourth quarter to take its first lead of the half, 45-44, with 6:13 left.
"When it came to 10, that was great but we knew they had a couple of their best players on the bench," Lee said. "We knew that the push was going to come. We had a couple of really good looks that didn't go in and maybe if they do it's different. You know they’re the kind of team that gave everything they had."
""Not having Chapman in the game in the first half for 12 minutes (was a big difference)", Lasbury said. "I love when he goes to the basket. He's tough to stop. He plays above the rim, so it hurt not having him in the first half. He had fresh legs (in the second half). Even if he doesn't score, he changes the dynamics of our offense."
Cheshire took the lead back on a Kevin Adams' put-back and a Howard 20-foot jumper for a 48-45 edge with 3:50 to go.
But Southington retook it on Borofsky's layup and extended it with two free throws from Romano and two from Tyler Dube (15 points, four rebounds) to make it 53-48 with 1:19 to go. Bailey's last three with 55 seconds left cut it to 53-51. That was the closest the Rams would come.
Leonetti finished with a team-high 13 points; Zovas had 10 with seven rebounds and Bailey nine and Howard eight with six rebounds for Cheshire. Chapman scored 11 and Borofsky nine for Southington.
"We had a pretty sour taste in our mouth a year ago this day and they took that very personal and I'm thrilled to have the victory," Lasbury said. "We're not going to be able to make the mistakes we made tonight against a team like (Holy Cross)."