East Catholic boys basketball holds on in final seconds for D1 title against Notre Dame-West Haven

UNCASVILLE — The last time East Catholic had played a boys basketball game at the Mohegan Sun Arena, the Eagles lost to Bristol Central in December.

But the players did write something on the board in the locker room: “Be back in March.”

“They all signed it. We showed that picture before we left the school today. That’s something these guys did on their own,” East Catholic coach Luke Reilly said. “Sometimes the game unfolds the right way, and you get smiled on. I thought we got smiled on tonight.”

That didn’t even seem like a remote possibility — in mid-January when East Catholic stood at 4-3. Even after a quarterfinal-round loss to Northwest Catholic in the CCC tournament. East Catholic wasn’t a favorite in Division I.

But no one told East Catholic. Four wins later, including a dramatic 50-49 one over No. 2 seed Notre Dame-West Haven Sunday night, the eighth-seeded Eagles successfully defended their state championship at Mohegan.

“I’m just thrilled for all these guys,” Reilly said. “It’s so hard. You’ve got to be good enough, you’ve got to put in the time, you got to have enough talent, you got to get lucky and things have to unfold the right way.”

There were over 17,000 fans for the 10 boys and girls basketball games held this weekend.

James Jones, who finished with 14 points and 13 rebounds and four blocked shots for East Catholic, made two clutch free throws with 19.6 seconds left to put the Eagles up 50-47. Notre Dame called its final timeout.

Timaury Gay received the pass and was set to launch from the corner, but Jones came over to block the tying 3. Gay then grabbed the loose ball and went in for the layup.

“I knew they didn’t have any timeouts, I saw the layup go in, I said, ‘Let it (the ball) drop.’” Jones said. “I don’t think I’ve even realized it yet. It all happened so fast.”

But the seconds wound down — the clock does not stop in high school — and by the time the ball was inbounded and an attempt at a foul could be made, the final horn sounded.

“I know once he had the layup, it was over,” Notre Dame coach Jason Shea. “It was hard to lose how we lost. We took 22 more shots and we turned the ball over three to their 19. Those two stats alone are generally double-figure wins.”

That last state title for East Catholic came in 2019 and after two seasons were missed due to COVID-19, the tournament was back and the Eagles worked their way through the draw toward its seventh state championship and the third this weekend for the CCC. Bristol Central (Division II) and Bloomfield (IV) were the others.

Notre Dame came up just a little bit short in its bid to win its first state championship.

“We just really struggled from the field. Some of that has to do with their defense. We just had a tough night shooting the ball (37.5 percent),” Shea said. “I thought our guys played their hearts out from start to finish.”

Andrew Lazarre scored 16 points and had three steals in his final game.

East Catholic only made two field goals in the final quarter. And it was the only one from Luke Reilly Jr.: a corner 3 after a Notre Dame turnover that put East Catholic up 6 with just over 90 seconds left.

“I knew sooner or later in the game I’d have to make a shot,” Reilly Jr., who had watched his dad win previous titles in 2014, 2016 and 2019. “It’s so special, but in the moment, I am calling all these guys my brothers. If I’m being honest, it feels equally as special with all these guys because we will be sharing this for life.”

Notre Dame trailed by eight early in the fourth quarter, but climbed back into it and closed to within one twice.

Notre Dame had three nine-point leads in the first quarter, including a 15-6 edge through one.

But East Catholic was able to survive the standing eight count, then get in some body blows itself in this Division I battle of heavyweights.

“We knew they were going to come out strong. We knew they were going to throw a punch right away,” Reilly said. “In watching their games, they don’t have a lot of close games. They are used to steamrolling people. We knew if we stood back and made a little bit of a comeback, we’d be there in the end.”

Preston Fowler, a 6-6 freshman, came off the bench to score nine points in the second quarter. East Catholic scored 20 over all and, more importantly, held Notre Dame to nine to take its first lead of the game, 26-24, on a Fowler field goal.

The game continued at East Catholic’s pace in the third quarter. Precision cuts and several passes leading to easy baskets. The Eagles were shooting over 65 percent from the floor through three quarters.


James Jones, East Catholic: Posted a double-double (14 points and 13 rebounds), made two key free throws down the stretch and blocked a potential tying 3-point shot.

joseph.morelli@hearstmediact.com; @nhrJoeMorelli


EAST CATHOLIC 7 19 15 9 — 50

NOTRE DAME-WEST HAVEN 15 9 11 14 — 49

EAST CATHOLIC: Allyn Wright 4 1 0-0 9, Robert Elliott 4 1 0-0 9, James Jones 5 2 2-4 14, Leondre Sanchez 3 0 0-0 6, Preston Fowler 4 0 1-2 9, Samson Reilly 1 1 0-0 3.

NOTRE DAME-WEST HAVEN: Mekhi Conner3 1 2-2 9, Timaury Gay 4 1 0-0 9, Andrew Lazarre 7 2 0-0 16, Tajae Jones 3 0 1-3 7, Jordan Elliott 3 0 0-0 6, Amare Davis 1 0 0-0 2.