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Freshman Jake Palluzzi and the Branford boys’ basketball team finished their year with a record of 8-6 after taking a 52-37 defeat against Lyman Hall in the semifinals of the SCC Division II Tournament on March 23. Also pictured for the Hornets is junior David McDonald. (Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
Senior Justin Elpi scored 17 points for the Hornets when they earned a 53-46 win versus Guilford in the SCC Division II semifinals. (File photo by Kelley Fryer/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
After notching seven victories during the regular season, the Branford boys’ basketball team won its first game in the SCC Division II Tournament to advance to a semifinal matchup against Lyman Hall last week. Although the Hornets took a loss to Lyman Hall, they still eclipsed their win total from last year by finishing the 2021 campaign with an overall record of 8-6.
No. 4 seed Branford traveled to Wallingford to face top-seeded Lyman Hall in the SCC Division II semifinals on March 23. Both teams played a tight-knit first quarter and ended the period locked in a 10-10 tie. Lyman Hall won the second quarter by a 14-10 margin to take a 24-20 lead into the halftime. The Trojans went on to outscore the Hornets in both the third (11-5) and fourth (17-12) quarters to come away with the 52-37 victory and advance to the final, where they earned a 32-26 win against East Haven.
Junior David McDonald and freshman Jake Palluzzi both scored eight points for Branford in the game. Senior Dominic Bonanno had six points, while junior Dylan Sachs scored five points for Head Coach Chris Burnham’s squad.
“It was disappointing, but overall, the team played very tough. We rebounded very well. I was impressed. We battled with them,” Coach Burnham said. “We knew it was going to be a low-scoring game. We kept battling and we got a lot of good looks. We just weren’t putting them away. It wasn’t in the cards. I wasn’t upset with the team. They executed the game-plan.”
Branford had advanced to the SCC semifinals by claiming a 53-46 home victory versus No. 5 seed Guilford in the quarterfinal round on March 20. The Hornets trailed 15-13 after the first quarter and were down 26-21 at halftime. Branford battled back after the break by outscoring the Grizzlies 20-9 in the third quarter and 12-11 in the fourth to win the game by seven.
“I thought we played well in the second half. We didn’t necessarily play terrible in the first half, but they were playing more physical than us and playing harder at the time. We just needed to pick it up a little bit,” said Burnham. “We just kind of broke through and made a change in the defense, which built momentum going forward.”
As Branford started clawing its way back, Coach Burnham implemented a 3-2 zone. Burnham wanted the Hornets to do a better job of limiting Guilford’s offensive attack. Burnham said the tactic paid off and that Branford started seeing more success once the switch was made.
“We came out of halftime with some renewed energy. We really rebounded well and tightened up some things,” Burnham said. “When we got in the zone, it threw off what they were trying to do. It got them off of their rhythm. We were able to capitalize.”
Palluzzi hit six 3-pointers on his way to scoring 24 points for Branford. Senior Justin Elpi scored 17 points, hitting a pair of threes in the victory. Palluzzi and Elpi combined for 41 of Branford’s 53 points on the night. Coach Burnham said he was impressed with how the two guards played in both that game and throughout the entire season. Both players made the All-SCC East Division Team this year.
“While Jake was putting up the points in the second half, it was really Elpi who got us going in the first half. He was really aggressive to the rim. He hit a couple tough ones, too, and hit some big free throws down the stretch,” said Burnham. “The guards have really been good together all year. That was the first game where they were back to where we thought they would be.”
The 2021 Hornets were led by a senior class of seven athletes that included captains Tucker Jacobson and Jackson Van Gelder, along with Elpi, Bonanno, Sean McCarthy, Nicholas Volpe, and Kamryn Holmes. Coach Burnham said that the seniors were able to keep things fun at practices throughout the year. In addition to their growth was athletes, Burnham attributes much of Branford’s success to how much his seniors matured as people.
“These seniors have been with me my whole time and have played a lot of minutes. What stands out most is the maturity that those seniors showed. Just how they grew,” Burnham said. “You can take talent and ability out of it—we won games based on their character. They bought in, they battled. No one wanted to be the superstar. I’ll always remember that.”
Coach Burnham and his players felt that they had something to prove entering the winter season. On the heels of a run to the SCC Division II semifinals, Burnham feels proud of how the Hornets were able to come together and establish themselves as one of the top teams in the conference.
“It was special for me because of that group. Coach Jake Palluzzi being back there on the bench with his son really brought it all around. All the hard work and ridicule the kids took, we all had to prove ourselves,” said Burnham. “We weren’t getting picked to win. The guys were grinding it out, and they needed to earn their own respect. They earned it. A few bounces go one way, we could have been in the championship. It meant a lot for the program.”