GRANBY — The day after Avon had routed Granby by 35 points in the NCCC boys basketball tournament title game, Granby coach Wally Hansen pondered what could motivate his team for the upcoming Class S tournament.
He turned to the sun — the Mohegan Sun Arena, site of the state championship game.
Hansen drew a smiling, circular sun face with “Mohegan” on its forehead on the team whiteboard in the locker room. Above it he wrote an inspirational quote from Celtics coach Doc Rivers: “I know you all want to win. . . but you have to do it TOGETHER!”
“I put it up because I didn’t want the season to end for these guys,” Hansen said
The Bears rebounded from that 71-36 loss to Avon on Feb. 28 to defeat East Hampton 77-72, Old Saybrook 58-45, Kolbe Cathedral-Bridgeport 56-54 and Weaver-Hartford 83-81 in double overtime for the championship.
“We saw that Mohegan sun every day after Avon,” Granby forward Carlin Champion said. “We knew we didn’t play hard in that game. We knew we were better than that.”
The Bears were determined to make history in a town known more for scoring high school soccer goals than basketball field goals.
Granby has won or shared 11 state titles in 15 boys soccer title games. Its boys basketball team never played in a title game until March 16 at Mohegan Sun Arena.
That day is forever known in Granby sports lore. The No. 3 seeded Bears trailed No. 25 Weaver 40-19 early in the third quarter.
Granby’s trapping defense contributed to 21 Weaver turnovers the rest of the game and fueled the Bears’ offense.
With 9 seconds left, Granby trailed 68-65. Brett Buser split two defenders and made a three-pointer with 3.4 seconds to go to send the game to the first OT.
“When that went in, I said, ‘There’s no way we’re going to lose,’ “ forward David Eke said.
Champion blocked a Joseph Brown shot with 3 seconds remaining in the first overtime, sending the game to a second OT.
Granby, led by Buser’s 23 points and Mike Noyes’ 19, wouldn’t be denied.
“When the final horn went off, it was the best feeling I ever had,” Buser said.
Estimates of the number of Granby fans at Mohegan Sun Arena ranged from 2,500 to 4,000. The population of Granby, according to the town website, is around 11,000.
After the game, the team ate at Michael Jordan’s 23 cafe outside the arena. “Seeing the joy in all the players’ eyes, I’ll never forget it,” Hansen said.
The celebration didn’t end at Jordan’s.
When the team bus crossed the Granby town line, it got a police escort to the high school. Parents and fans gave the team a rousing ovation when the players stepped off the bus.
Forward Tanner Gibson remembered Bernie Merli’s white pickup truck that was parked in his front yard.
“I worked for him helping wash tractors and stuff last summer,” Gibson said. “He painted on a big piece of paper, which he taped on the front of the truck, and you saw it when you drove into town: ‘State Champions Congratulations Tanner.’ “
The cheers continued two days later when the players returned to school.
“I got a standing ovation when I walked into my first period, Spanish AP [Advanced Placement],” Noyes said.
Other players received similar receptions.
“In my language and composition class, our teacher [Lauren Shafer] held up the front sports page of The Courant [of March 17] and said, this was great example of ‘visual rhetoric,’ “ guard Jakob Yankauskas said.
Since the Weaver game, it seems wherever a Granby player goes in town, everyone knows his name.
“I was in Cumberland Farms, and I had my Granby championship sweatshirt,” forward/center Curt Field said. “A little guy, probably 5 years old, tugged on the back of the shirt. He said, ‘Can I have your autograph?’ I said, ‘Sure, where do you want me to sign?’ He said, ‘My forehead.’ I asked his mom if that was OK. She said it was.”
Granby’s season has evoked some comparisons to “
.” The 1986 movie was the basketball story of a team from a rural town in Indiana, Hickory. The underdog team defeated a team from the city, South Bend, on Jimmy Chitwood’s shot at the horn.
While many people outside of Granby thought Weaver would win, Hansen didn’t believe his team was the underdog. “Before the tournament, I thought we were one of three or four teams that could win it,” he said.
Beyond that, there were similarities between Hickory and Granby.
Hickory got a surprise player addition midway through its season in Chitwood, while Buser started the season after transferring from
in New York. Hickory posted significant victories with last-second shots, while Granby won four games in regulation or OT with such shots. The loyal fans’ support home and away was there for both Hickory and Granby.
“Destiny played a part for sure against Weaver,” Gibson said. “Brett’s shot, Champ’s block and Noyes [in regulation] and I fouling out [in the first OT].”
Then there was Logan Brower, who had averaged about 5 minutes a game, playing 13 and nailing a three in the first OT, and Eke grabbing eight rebounds off the bench.
Champion agrees that some good fortune was involved in the historic season. But more importantly it was Hansen coaching and the players’performing. “All the talk that we couldn’t do it and don’t play ‘basketball’ in the NCCC didn’t mean a thing,” Champion said. “It was all about the game.”
He then unveiled a smile that for his team and all its fans looked as wide as Hansen’s Mohegan sun on the team whiteboard.