HARTFORD - Matt Lance loves Starbursts.
Before most of this season’s games, the Innovation boys basketball head coach has dunked his hand into a big bag of the fruit snack to indulge before tip-off. Some assistants joke the candy helps keep Lance quiet.
But the slightly superstitious Ravens’ fourth-year coach - who has guided the team to new heights in a program-building season and does plenty of shouting on the sidelines - calls them his “lucky Starbursts.”
And on Wednesday night, with his team’s offense limping along in the first half of a Division V semifinal game against Valley Regional, Lance was especially lucky to have Lester Emanuel on his side.
Innovation’s shooting in the first two quarters against their Shoreline Conference opponent was rough. Of the six players who saw minutes in the half, five of them combined for a 4-for-19 showing on field goal attempts. But Emanuel shined.
The senior guard seized his moment, giving the Ravens an offensive spark in an otherwise barren team performance by hitting all four of his shots in the second quarter for eight points to lead the team with nine points, boosting it to an 18-10 halftime lead.
“That’s the type of game where Lester can thrive with his athleticism and ability to get to the rim and finish,” Lance said. “With Lester, he got us easier looks and higher-percentage looks at the basket. Clearly, they were all over LJ [Hazelwood]. We knew they were gonna try and stop LJ so that opened things up for a guard. Lester was aggressive penetrating and got out in transition a couple times. He was able to finish, and that was huge for us to just see the ball go through the hoop a couple times.”
The second-team All-CRAL performer got his first bucket in transition, finishing off a Hazelwood offensive rebound and pass ahead by fully extending his right arm with the ball in his hand and smoothly curling it in off the glass. Emanuel then powered in three straight buckets over a two-minute span near the end of the half, closing with a beautiful drive and finish with a floater over the top of his defender.
He only scored one more point the rest of the way, grinding down low to snag an offensive rebound while being fouled to work his way to the free throw line midway through the third quarter. But eight of his 10 points came at a critical time when the Ravens were able to stave off a similarly poor-shooting Warriors team in a 42-38 victory that sent Innovation to Sunday’s state championship game against No. 3 seed Old Lyme (10:30 a.m. at Mohegan Sun Arena).
“Honestly, I didn’t wanna go home,” Emanuel said. “It’s my last season, and with me playing a big role in the offense, I knew I had to come back and play on defense [too]. That’s where it all starts. Every time I get out in transition, I gotta get my layups to get my team going. I let my game come to me, but defense is always my priority.”
This top-seeded Ravens team (23-2) is led by the one-two punch of 6-foot-6 Lenny Okonya and the 6-foot-4 Hazelwood. The offense runs through them.
And with all the other pieces surrounding Innovation’s squad, it seems like Emanuel’s production sometimes goes unnoticed or underappreciated. But not by his teammates. They have seen the senior’s improvement over the last two years, and they know how critical his role is.
“[Lester brings] intensity and defense. He’s a monster, honestly,” Hazelwood said. “You look at him and you just see an athlete, you feel me? He brings so much more to the table than people think. Earlier in the season, he might not have had high numbers, but when it comes down to this defensive part right here, Lester is someone we can always count on.”
The development of Emanuel’s game has been palpable. But what is harder to see, except for Emanuel himself, is his growth with the mental part of the game. It’s probably the best explanation for moments like Wednesday’s when he was able to take over the contest.
“I definitely got more confident. My sophomore year, if I was out here playing, I would’ve folded,” Emanuel said. “But now, playing with my teammates, it’s not just me. I have to look out for my brothers too. We have to ball hard every game. Me knowing that, it keeps me going harder and harder, and that’s a concept I didn’t understand when I was younger.”
That development of confidence and the ability to be headstrong is also what has helped him shine while typically getting an earful from Lance on the sidelines.
“I’m tough on a lot of my guys, but I’m extremely tough on Lester,” Lance said. “I tell him all the time, ‘With your athleticism and the things you can do, you could take over games.’ It’s a mindset. It’s nothing physical or skill-wise. He’s a gamer. He can rebound, defend and get to the rim. [Wednesday] night, I was definitely proud, and I was happy because I am extremely, extremely tough on him to get him to the point where he does everything he’s capable of doing in games.”
Of offense, it’s not Emanuel’s scoring that usually takes the limelight, however. The 6-foot senior does not have a score-first mindset, says Lance. Instead, Emanuel prefers to dish it off to his teammates.
“He’s really unselfish, and he sets guys up,” Lance said. “[Wednesday night], and in last year’s quarterfinal game against Cromwell, he had double-digit points. He can score when we need him to and the matchup’s there. But usually, Lester doesn’t force things. He lets the game come to him, and I thought [Wednesday] night, for the most part, he took what was there.”
In Lance’s defense-first system, Emanuel is the prototypical player the Ravens coach is looking for. He is able to defend all areas of the floor and all types of players, and that will be on full display for fans to enjoy Sunday against the Wildcats (21-5).
“Lester’s versatility is huge. If we need to give LJ, Lenny or CJ [Allen] a break, Lester can guard a big if he has to,” Lance said. “He can also go guard a really quick guard on the perimeter. For us, he allows us to have a matchup advantage because he’ll defend anybody, and he can be a mismatch problem. If you defend him with a bigger guy, he’s gonna get by them. If you defend him with a smaller guard, he’s gonna be able to finish over you. I just think his versatility is huge, and a couple of his assignments this year he’s guarded bigger guards and taken them out of the game. He just adds a different element to us.”
Zack Carpenter can be reached at (860) 973-1811 or email@example.com