Like many successful teams from a year ago, the Terryville boys basketball team entered its 2021 campaign feeling like it had unfinished business from the season it never finished.
The Kangaroos were a day away from their game against familiar Berkshire League foe Shepaug Valley in the second round of the Division V state tournament when the coronavirus pandemic put a hard stop on high school sports in Connecticut. They returned this year to post an 8-4 record in the regular season and qualify as the third-seeded team for the Berkshire League Tournament.
Following wins over reigning conference champions Wamogo and second-seeded Nonnewaug, Terryville was one win away from making the most of this shortened season. On the other side of this March 26 matchup for conference supremacy was Shepaug Valley, giving the remaining members of both teams a chance to fulfill a game that was more than a year in the making.
“The irony of that was not lost on anybody,” head coach Mark Fowler said. “The Shepaug coach and I talked about how it was a fitting ending to the season. We had a lot of the same crew and key players back from both teams so it was more than ironic, it was something in the covid year that made it all come together.”
A back-and-forth game for all 32 minutes, Shepaug had an opportunity to tie the game in the final seconds, but Terryville held strong to win 54-51 and bring home its first conference title since 2014.
The Spartans were making shots early and saw great success from behind the arc to build a 10-point lead early in the game, but the Kangaroos were able to start their comeback before halftime. Terryville was anchored by a pair of double-doubles from Dominick Dao, who finished the game with a career-high 24 points and 10 rebounds, and Dylan Matulis who notched 19 points and grabbed 12 rebounds.
Dao’s scoring was the catalyst of the Kangaroos’ run, as he had 14 points at halftime. The run continued after the break as Terryville won the third quarter 20-4.
“When we fell behind early, we knew where we were struggling against their zone and we had to let Dom go to work,” Fowler said. “He found their soft spot, which was the high post. We just weren’t looking to him there early and we really made an emphasis to [change that].”
By the end of the third period, the Kangaroos turned their double-digit deficit into a double-digit lead. Not only did their scoring pick up, but they shifted their defense to a box-and-one zone as a way to slow down Shepaug’s Owen Hibbard, who Fowler called the best player in the conference.
Hibbard finished the game with a team-high 20 points, but being blanketed by either Devin Dao or Sean O’Donnell for the remainder of the contest seriously disrupted the Spartans’ offense.
“It was a rollercoaster,” Fowler said. “We were able to put our own run together at the end of the second quarter to get us back within striking distance at the half. We made an adjustment defensively, we played a box and one because they have the best player in the league on their team. At the start of the second half, it gave them some trouble and it took the ball out of their best player’s hands and that helped.”
Shepaug made one final push in the fourth quarter to come within three points of Terryville, but Hibbard was forced out of bounds after failing to find a shot in the first 25 seconds of the possession. He had one more chance with heave in the final seconds, but did not complete the prayer and the buzzer sounded in favor of the Kangaroos.
“I was floored with how much it meant to them,” Fowler said. “They were really emotional after that game. It’s not often you get to end your season on a win, I know that’s cliche, but I think it really overwhelmed these guys. Not only was it their last game, but they got to do it on their home court and win a title.”
There is no replacing what basketball players across the state lost in the past year, but many were able to rise to the occasion and get as much as they could out of the 2021 season. The Kangaroos were able to climb the tallest mountain they were given and will always be able to look back fondly on this season.
“This is a group that I’ve known for many years since I had them in school as their gym teacher and we’ve always had a special bond,” Fowler said. “To them come through, not only have a season, but to go on and win the title, it will always have a special place in my heart.”
Matt Hornick can be reached at (860) 973-1811 or firstname.lastname@example.org