NEW BRITAIN - Ramiesh Bogle collapsed to the floor, the weight of the moment crippling him with emotion.
One of seven seniors on the Innovation boys basketball team, Bogle hit perhaps the biggest shot of his career with 0.8 remaining on the clock of Wednesday night’s Division V state tournament semifinals game against Valley Regional.
With the Ravens leading by three points, Bogle was sent to the free throw line for a double-bonus opportunity. After missing the first shot, Bogle backpedaled and head coach Matt Lance locked eyes with his senior guard and pounded his chest. Bogle looked right back at his head coach and beat his own chest.
The senior guard then stepped back up to the line and calmly sank the second attempt. The shot gave the Ravens a four-point lead, icing the game as the Warriors tossed up a fruitless full-court heave at the buzzer.
Bogle’s free throw sealed a 42-38 victory, setting off a wild celebration as Bogle dropped face down onto the court with teammates swarming him, and students and friends piled onto the court to relish what the Ravens players had dreamt of for years and finally made real - a trip to Mohegan Sun Arena and a spot in the state championship game.
“You could definitely tell we owned the moment,” said junior LJ Hazelwood, referencing Lance’s pregame advice to his players to seize the opportunity in front of them. “You can tell you own the moment when all your fans are standing up and screaming, and [Valley Regional] has their fans and they’re just sitting down. You know you’re doing your job when you’re getting everybody into it and you can take their people out of it.”
Bogle’s reaction was not the only emotional one displayed by a Ravens senior, many of whom have talked about reaching the apex of the state tournament since they first put on a varsity uniform - an achievement many thought impossible just three seasons ago when Innovation followed an 0-15 season with a 2-18 record.
Armoni Alonso cried tears of joy in the locker room. Lenny Okonya couldn’t stop sporting a gigantic smile as he hopped up and down, bouncing around the gym at Bulkeley High School.
“I’ve been here for four years so there was a time you couldn’t even get a win,” Alonso said. “It’s been a rough journey. There were literally games where we just came in and tried not to lose by 20. This year is just so much different.”
“In the locker room after the game, I gave [Lance] a big hug and told him, ‘We came a long way,’” said senior Okonya, a freshman on Lance’s first Ravens squad who has been with his head coach since he was an assistant for Okonya’s eighth-grade team. “We just embraced each other because we really did come from nothing. Four years ago, nobody would’ve thought we could do it, but we’re here now and we’re ready to get one more.”
Carlos Gonzalez raced around the floor, letting out a loud scream as fellow senior Lester Emanuel sprinted over to wrap him in a bear hug. Gonzalez draped his jersey over his eyes as tears flowed down his face.
As freshmen, Gonzalez remembers sitting in class with Emanuel, and the two daydreamed about getting to Mohegan Sun Arena.
“We were saying, for some reason, something’s gonna happen. Senior year’s gonna be our year, and we’re gonna be state champions,” Gonzalez said. “We’re getting the opportunity to fulfill that dream, and it feels amazing.”
It’s finally here. Sunday at The Sun.
At 10:30 a.m., No. 1-seeded Innovation (23-2) will square off with No. 3 Old Lyme (21-5), as each program looks to raise its first state championship banner in its first title game appearance.
“It’s a little overwhelming,” Gonzalez said. “Part of me is happy because we made it. We did what we set out to do. Another part of me is saying, I said ‘Two more’ [after the quarterfinals win] so now it’s one more. One more game. We gotta treat it like any other game. We’ve gotta be ready to come out for a fight.”
The Ravens used their trademark of defensive intensity to win 18 games in the regular season and a CRAL Tournament championship. Defense has carried them to the title game as well, as Innovation defeated No. 16 Coventry (63-36), No. 9 HMTCA (73-60) and No. 5 Valley Regional (42-38).
For the Ravens, their defense started to click during a 61-37 loss to Division II semifinalist Manchester Jan. 10. After getting buried in the first half, Lance gave a speech about clamping down on defense in the second half, and the Ravens bought in. They played to within a three-point deficit in the second half, and in the next 12 regular-season games, they allowed more than 48 points just twice during an 11-1 stretch.
“At first it was hard to buy into the defensive-first approach because when you think of basketball and the top-tier basketball players, you see offensive highlights. You don’t always see defensive highlights,” Okonya said. “But once we started getting going on defense and got into that groove on defense, we realized we really do take pride in our defense. Even against HMTCA, which scored almost 100 points in a game [twice], we held them to 60. That’s a really good mark for us, knowing our defense is always gonna be there. That really is a cornerstone of our program.”
That stout defense must slow down a Wildcats squad that defeated No. 14 Gilbert (75-65), No. 6 Morgan (61-41) and No. 2 Somers (69-53) with an outstanding offense that has the ability to score in spurts.
It will be the second straight Shoreline Conference opponent for Innovation in the postseason, one that is led by a contingent of guards who can shoot well and finish around the basket.
The Wildcats are led on offense by Aeden Using, a dynamic 6-foot-5 junior forward who can shoot and put the ball on the deck and get to the rim. Using scored 24 points in their victory over Somers, including 15 in the second half.
“There are some really good teams in the Shoreline Conference,” Old Lyme head coach Kirk Kaczor said. “We also scheduled out of league so we played Glastonbury and Daniel Hand. We played some bigger schools to try and get us ready for this weekend’s game. This is something you dream about. Ninety-nine percent of kids don’t get to play in this game. I think that might be underestimating it. This is pretty special.”
Kaczor, on the other hand, will have to figure out a way to contend with the athletic Ravens who crash the glass hard.
“I’ve seen [Innovation] play just a little bit,” Kaczor said. “We do know they’re fast, athletic and trap. They can run the floor. They’re monsters on the boards. We’ve really gotta make sure we handle their pressure and try to keep them out of transition.”
As for Innovation, the seniors have already left a strong mark on the program. Now, they want to finish the job by stopping Old Lyme.
"I feel like we’ve left a pretty good legacy,” Okonya said of the senior class, “especially since we’ve done something no other CRAL team has done. ... Given this opportunity, I feel like this legacy is cemented and the cement is gonna dry if we get that last win at Mohegan."
For Lance, Sunday will be bittersweet win or lose. The head coach has grown in an equal capacity along with his seven seniors, a group that has built this program quite literally from the ground up. He has coached some of them since they were in eighth grade.
Even though he hopes to remain close with each of them as they graduate and move onto playing careers and academic careers in college, he knows this is the final ride.
“Even now, up until the last day, I don’t want to think about Sunday being my last day coaching them,” Lance said. “I’m trying not to think about it because this group is a really, really special group. I’m trying not to think about it, but all good things really do come to an end. A lot of what we have been able to do as a program started with our seniors last year, and it carried over to what we did this year. I’m gonna miss them, but hopefully we can send them out in style.”