BETHEL -- Visiting Berlin's celebration was put on hold for a small eternity, allowing referees to deliberate over how many grains of sand in the hourglass the Bethel boys basketball team would have to rescue its season from the clutches of March.
Then, with 1.2 seconds restored, it became real: A desperate inbounds heave was tipped from the grasp of Bethel star Daniel Garvin near midcourt, cuing a second, more official court-storming in No. 19 Berlin's stunning 57-56 victory over the third-seeded Wildcats in the second round of the Class M state tournament Wednesday night.
Playing without head coach Mike Veneziano for 2 1/2 quarters and trailing by as many as 13 points, the Redcoats, well, never surrendered. They buried nearly as many 3-pointers (nine) as 2-pointers (11), the two biggest leaving the fingertips of sophomore Brendon Vessichio inside of the final 30 seconds: The first briefly tied the game at 54-all with 22 seconds to go before Bethel's Frankie Magrone netted a pair of free throws. The second, a dagger from the left elbow that was launched with about four seconds on the clock, appeared, to the contingent of Berlin fans that spilled onto the floor, to drop as time expired. One play later, it stood as a game-winner, sucking the air from a packed gym.
"Our guys played gutsy," said Berlin assistant coach Joe Serfass, who took over for Veneziano in the second quarter when he was assessed a double technical for arguing with an official. "At halftime we said we're going to do it for our coach. That's the first time I've seen him react like that."
Serfass said Berlin's gameplan was to "not let (Garvin) beat us." They effectively bottled up the 6-foot-6 senior, holding him to 15 points on three field goals and 9-of-13 shooting from the foul line. And in the fourth quarter, just as the Redcoats were catching fire from deep, the Wildcats went cold. Matt Liquori's go-ahead layup with 1:20 left was the Wildcats' only field goal in the fourth, which interrupted a 14-5 Berlin run that started midway through the third.
"We had looks, they just didn't go in," said Bethel coach Ray Turek. "They really packed it in tight around Danny, and we got some looks from the outside, but we just went cold at the wrong time. Conversely, down the other end, they hit some really tough shots."
Veneziano was ejected with 5:10 left in the second quarter, right as Berlin was showing some fight after falling behind 20-11 in the opening quarter. It was a foul on Bethel's James Jerolimo that set Veneziano off, resulting in Jerolimo's making 5-of-6 free throws to stretch the Wildcats' lead to 27-16. But no Bethel lead, including multiple double-digit margins, felt safe. Not with Berlin senior point guard Darren Gilbert lighting it up en route to a game-high 30 points, nor with Garvin getting bumped, battered and consistently double-teamed on the other end.
In his final high school game, the All-State forward was typically dominant on defense but could never establish any rhythm on offense.
"It's no excuse," Garvin said of Berlin's defensive strategy. "We could have pulled this game out. We just didn't execute at the end of the game."
"(I told the team) obviously we expected to be playing a little longer, but it doesn't take away from the fun that we've had this year," Turek said. "We've done some special things this year that Bethel teams are going to have to do some special things to match. It's disappointing, but this really doesn't change what we've done, how we've come together as a team."
R.J. Veneziano 0 0-0 0; Tyler Stritch 3 0-0 8; Tyler Bouchard 0 0-0 0; Darren Gilbert 10 5-6 30; Brendon Vessechio 5 0-0 13; Dominick Nuzzo 0 0-2 0; Dante Vasi 2 0-0 4. Totals: 20 5-8 57.
BERLIN 11 20 11 15 -- 57
BETHEL 20 21 6 9 -- 56
3-pointers: Ber -- Gilbert 4, Vessichio 3, Stritch 2; Bet -- Daniels, Duffy 2, Liquori 2.