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Division IV: Innovation boys basketball wins first title since 2019 over Cheney Tech

UNCASVILLE – Innovation boys basketball coach Matt Lance had been here before, in this exact same position with his team down eight or 10 points right away in the state championship game.

“When we were here five years ago, we got down 10-2,” Lance said. “When our backs are against the wall, I was like, ‘Mentally stay in it, we’ll figure it out.’ We’ll pump the brakes on what we’re doing offensively, play better defensively, we made some tactical changes but I had the utmost confidence in my team.”

Trailing by eight at halftime, with one of their best players in first-half foul trouble, the third-seeded Ravens (25-2) rallied to defeat No. 4 Cheney Tech 55-48 for the Division IV championship Sunday at Mohegan Sun Arena.

“Especially in the post-season, our strongest quarter has been our third quarter,” Lance said. “They came out of the locker room and they just believed and they worked their behinds off and defense is what carried us.

“For me it was like déjà vu, we’ve been in this spot before, five years ago, we can do this.”

Innovation last won a title in 2019, in Division V. Cheney Tech (24-4) was looking to become the first tech school to win a state title since 1967.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say it was pressure,” Cheney Tech coach Ismael Caro said. “It was definitely a stepping stone for the program, a stepping stone for the kids. I know a lot of guys (from other tech schools) have reached out to me and told me how proud they are of us.”

Senior Amari Cruz led Innovation with 17 points, scoring 15 in the second half after he got in foul trouble in the first half and sat. He was named the game’s Most Outstanding Player. Junior forward Ibrahim Sidik made life miserable for Cheney inside, with 15 points and 13 rebounds.

Cheney Tech jumped out to a 10-0 lead, then 10-2 when Cruz scored Innovation’s first basket with 4:02 left in the first quarter. Innovation trailed 24-16 at halftime.

But in the third quarter, Innovation came out with a 6-0 run and took the lead with 2:15 left on a Kanai Parkman fast break basket, 30-28.

“During the first half, we wasn’t rebounding as much and playing as good defense as we usually do,” Sidik said. “We were missing a lot of layups we usually make. Coing out of the locker room we had to get our mind in the right set. They’re a fast team, they like to play fast but we had to slow down the tempo and play at our own pace.”

Innovation did what they could to limit shots by Cheney senior Da’mnic Gittens, who still scored 27 points and had 12 rebounds. But while Innovation had three players in double figures; Cheney had only Gittens, who ended his career as Cheney’s all-time leading scorer.

“The program turned around four years ago when he got here,” Caro said. “Just his mindframe, the way he approached the game – he played his heart out today.”