Bristol holds off Maplewood, goes to 18-0

MECCA – The Bristol Panthers have bragging rights for another basketball season, and they have an oar as proof.

Sound a bit strange? There’s a good explanation.

After defeating the arch-rival Maplewood Rockets, 71-62, before a packed crowd Friday night in a Northeastern Athletic Conference game, the undefeated Panthers were presented an oar that will now serve as the annual prize for winning one of the two games between the teams each season. The oar, which was decorated on each side by the art classes of the schools, was the idea of Rockets coach Nathan Kish.

In a perfect world for Kish, he would have been the initial recipient of the prize. Instead he watched Panthers coach Craig Giesy take it home after a gut-check performance by Bristol in a game that saw the lead change hands eight times in the second half.

“We didn’t expect anything else,” Giesy said of the close action. “That team is well-coached. They are a very good team. I’m proud of our guys fighting through adversity to get the win. We got into a lot of foul trouble, and so did they. Our guys stepped up.”

It appeared the foul situation might sink the Panthers, who are 18-0 and 11-0 in the NAC. They sent the Rockets into the double bonus at the 2:16 mark of the third quarter. Maplewood (14-6 and 8-3 in the NAC) attempted 20 free throws in the half, while Bristol took 13 free throws.

The Panthers made up for a lack of opportunities at the line by making nine 3-point shots. Chad Oliver, who led all scorers with 28 points, made three 3-pointers. Brandon Lee made one 3-pointer on an 18-point night, and Aaron Wiebe came off the bench to make a pair of 3s.

“The game might have been tied, but Lee and Oliver just knocked down shots from everywhere,” Kish said. “We missed some easy shots and turned it over a little bit, and that was the difference in the game.”

The Rockets hurt their cause by committing 30 turnovers. The flip side of the aggressive defensive play by the Panthers was the foul trouble they encountered.

“That’s going to come with our press,” Oliver said. “It’s good and bad for us. We get easy buckets because of the steals we get, but we’re going to be in some foul trouble some parts of the year. We’re learning how to handle that as we go.”

The Rockets, who trailed 48-47 through three quarters, took leads of 53-52 and 55-54 in the fourth period. A 3-pointer by Lee gave the Panthers a 57-55 lead, but Ethan O’Bradovich made two foul shots to tie the score at 57 for the Rockets.

Oliver then made a 3-pointer to give Bristol the lead for good. Oliver missed the front end of a one-and-one with the Panthers leading 67-62 inside of one minute, but he scored on an easy layup following a steal moments later to stretch the lead to seven points.

“I was upset I missed the foul shot because foul shots are key,” Oliver said. “We were able to come up with the ball.”

The Panthers led 12-11 after the first quarter and appeared to be taking control when they stretched the advantage to 31-23 in the second period. The Rockets switched the momentum quickly with a seven-point run to end the half, including a steal and a layup by Luke Evan before the buzzer that reduced the deficit to 31-30 at halftime.

“I went into the locker room and said, ‘Listen, we have two quarters to play and we’re up one. I’ll take us in that situation every single time,’ ” Giesy said. “We tried to change our focus from giving up seven quick to, all right, we’re still in a fine spot. We’re up one. We have two quarters to go out and win this game.”

Evan led the Rockets in scoring with 19 points. O’Bradovich added 10.

“Our big thing this week was we had to stop Oliver and Lee by not letting them become comfortable shooting 3s, making them drive and collapsing on them and making it difficult,” Kish said. “Early in the first half we did a good job of that, and then the turnovers killed us. I told our guys we had to have less than 20 turnovers. We didn’t handle the pressure all the time the way we needed to.”

Bristol is back in action tonight at home against Geneva. Maplewood is at Southington Friday.