The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT)
Cromwell tops Ellington to win program’s 10th state title
UNCASVILLE — It’s real simple at Cromwell: if you don’t play defense, you don’t see the floor.
“You don’t play. Bottom line, you don’t play,” Cromwell coach John Pinone said.
Cromwell has had great defensive stretches during postseason games the last couple of years, including both Shoreline Conference tournament finals, resulting in back-to-back championships.
The Panthers put on another defensive clinic Sunday morning in the Division IV state championship game. They put the clamps on Ellington to rally to win the title 53-46 at the Mohegan Sun Arena.
Cromwell (25-2), the top seed, held No. 3 seed Ellington (22-5) to just 11 points combined over the second and third quarters.
“We did a much better job in the second half. Our intensity on the defensive level kicked up another notch,” Pinone said. “It’s a mindset every time out, every huddle, before the game, after the game . ... You have to keep people in front of us and we did a much better job of that in the second half.”
It is Cromwell’s 10th CIAC championship. The only teams that have more are Hillhouse (24), Wilbur Cross (14), Harding (12) and St. Joseph (11).
For Cromwell senior Jacob Salafia, who finished with 11 points, he gets adds to the family legacy: his grandfather’s cousin was Jake Salafia, who coached the Panthers to seven state championships, including five straight from 1967-71.
The gym is named after Salafia, who died in 2021 at 92.
“It’s a lot to carry. I’m glad me and the boys could get the job done. It means a lot to go out like that,” Salafia said.
Cromwell was going for its sixth straight in 1972, but lost to Ellington in the Class S final, the last time the Knights won a title.
“For those guys out there, we got them back. It took awhile but we got them, “said Pinone, who won titles in 2009 and 2018.
This one was a little bittersweet for the former Villanova University standout. Ellington coach Bob Freitas joined the Cromwell staff when Pinone got the job and was there from 2002-06.
“I have a lot of respect for him and their team. It just wasn’t our night tonight,” Freitas said about Cromwell.
Ellington ran off the final 10 points of the first quarter to lead 17-8.
Then Cromwell shut out the Knights for nearly 7 minutes in the second quarter. But the Panthers only could manage eight themselves in the quarter.
Ellington was able to shut out Cromwell junior Victor Payne for most of the first half, holding him to four points, scored over the final 2:25 of the half.
Elijah Miller, a 6-foot senior guard and Ellington’s best player, drew the defensive assignment, sacrificing his offense (four points) to keep Payne under wraps.
But Payne started to heat up in the second half. His 3-point play with 1:36 left in the third quarter was the fourth foul on Miller and put Cromwell ahead for good, 30-28.
Cromwell increased the lead early in the fourth and Freitas put Miller back in.
“One minute into the fourth quarter, that was my thought process because there is no tomorrow,” Freitas said.
“He brought us this far. We had to play him.”
Payne, who finished with 23 points on 8-of-12 shooting, did foul out Miller with 3:29 left. The lead was 10, 46-36.
“They told me in the
locker room I had to step up my game, so that’s what I tried to do,” Payne said.
“That was a big factor (foul trouble on Miller). We came into the game trying to get him in foul trouble, and us being able to do that takes away a really good scorer for them.”
Senior guard Cody Murphy scored 13 of his 23 points in the fourth quarter, trying to keep Ellington in it.
Player of the game
Victor Payne, Cromwell:
He didn’t score for almost the first 14 minutes, but managed to finish with 23 points, 19 in the second half, for the reigning Shoreline Conference Player of the Year.
“We always talk about what mark are our seniors going to leave when they graduate. And obviously, they have raised the bar now to another level.” — Cromwell coach John Pinone