STRATFORD — There was only one word that Stratford boys basketball coach Tim Swaller could use to describe what proved so costly to his team.
“Rebounding,” he said.
Swaller’s side lost the battle of the boards to Kolbe Cathedral and despite a valiant effort down the stretch by the Red Devils, they suffered a 61-54 setback to the Cougars in the SWC Tournament quarterfinals on Friday night in front of a packed house at the Needham Memorial Gymnasium.
“They (Kolbe) hurt us on the boards and (Quinton) Sneed-Lott is a big, strong physical kid and he killed us,” Swaller said. “He had a ton of rebounds and they had 19 offensive rebounds as a team. It felt like they scored on every single one of them so I think that was a huge factor in the game.”
With the victory, No. 6 seeded Kolbe (11-10) advances to the semifinals where the Cougars will play against No. 2 Bunnell, which stopped No. 7 Newtown 65-52 in another quarterfinal, on Monday at Bunnell.
Stratford (13-8), the No. 3 seed, will now gear up for the Division III state tournament.
Sneed-Lott was a thorn in the side of the Red Devils with 17 points and 24 rebounds and Evan Coleman (14 points) hit two huge 3-pointers in the fourth quarter to help the Cougars go on a 14-0 run from late in the third into the fourth and open up a 48-34 lead with five minutes remaining in the contest.
“We switched over to man-to-man at that point and we ran a couple of sets and did a nice job of freeing up Evan on some screens and he stepped up and made them,” Kolbe head coach John Pfohl said. “That was a major turning point in the game.”
Stratford was not going to bow out of the tourney without a fight thanks to the all-around play of senior forward and standout Jack Ryan (28 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals), who drained three of his four 3-pointers in the final minutes, including one off a steal and subsequent assist by Zach Fedak to close the gap to 48-45 with 1:30 on the clock.
“They went on a run, but we responded with a run of our own,” Swaller said. “We made it close and got it tight. It came down to one or two plays and not being able to get a stop when we needed it.”
Ryan, who was honored before the game for reaching the 1,000-point plateau in his career, said a slow start to the game, in which the Red Devils trailed 13-11 after the first quarter and 27-23 at the half, came back to haunt them.
“We didn’t wake up until it was too late,” Ryan said. “It’s a very tough loss and obviously we wanted this one bad but we’ll be back in the state tournament.”
Ryan scored 18 of his 28 points in the final frame but every time he made a play, Kolbe had an answer, especially at the free throw line.
“They were 15-for-18 from the line in the fourth,” Swaller said. “We had to foul at some point so we fouled and they were able to keep or extend their lead because of the free throws.”
The closest Stratford got the rest of the way was when Ryan was fouled on a 3-point attempt and converted all three free throws to make the score 56-52 with 16.8 seconds left. Eudell Mason and Taeshaun Sanchez (9 points, 4 assists) proceeded to go 4-for-4 from the free throw combined in the last few seconds to help salt away the win for the Cougars.
Also contributing to the cause for the Red Devils was senior guard Mike August, who cramped up late in the third quarter yet fought through it and finished with 15 points.
Swaller was not surprised in the least by his team’s heart and never-say-die attitude at the end.
“This group is not going to quit,” he said. “We’ve battled all year long and we played hard until the end, we just came up a few plays short and a few stops short. That was the difference.”