Now there can be no doubt. The New London High boys' basketball team is the undisputed best team in Connecticut after handling Northwest Catholic, 63-55, in the CIAC Class L finals Saturday before 8,000 at Mohegan Sun Arena.
You would not think the Whalers would have any doubters. Not after residing No. 1 in the New Haven Register state poll since December and not after bringing a 26-0 record into the finals. But for Whaler coach Craig Parker, the dissenters, critics of Eastern Connecticut Conference basketball and three poll voters who never listed the Whalers No. 1, provided extra incentive for his squad.
"We scout games and hear people in the stands saying 'Who does New London play in the ECC?'" Parker said. "I don't know what it is from people in other parts of the state. They bash our league but we compete for state titles. What don't they understand about that? I don't know what more we have to prove."
New London (27-0) need not prove a thing now. The Whalers led from start to finish against 24-2 Northwest Catholic, neutralizing the Indians' size with a solid inside effort and parlaying its edge in athleticism with its trademark pressing defense and the overall brilliance of guards Kris Dunn (26 points) and Torin Childs-Harris (15 points).
"These are the dynamic duo," Parker said of his backcourt aces. "They fell just a few points short of combining for 3,000 career points for a high school career which is outstanding. Torin graduates with a 99-6 record, 1,600 points, two state finals and a semifinal."
The game featured two of the state's most sought college recruits in Dunn, the 6-3 junior guard, and NWC's 6-8 sophomore Kuran Iverson. Dunn came up big, penetrating to the basket for most of his 26 points (10 of 20 shooting) and adding eight rebounds, matching his season averages. Iverson was ineffective as a ball-handler (8 turnovers) and never was settled in the offense, scoring just six, 11 below his average, on two of five shooting.
"Kuran was out of sorts offensively," Northwest coach John Mirabello said. "The key for us was to take care of the ball and we didn't do that. It was frustrating. Dunn was outstanding. He's so long and has such great instincts for the ball. You turn your head for a second and he's flicking the ball away."
New London took an 8-0 lead and never trailed throughout, holding a 13-10 lead after one quarter and 27-23 at halftime. Northwest forward J.C. Carr, son of former UConn standout Jeff Carr, kept the Indians in it with eight of his team-high 19 points at half.
"One of the keys for us was to neutralize them inside," Parker said. "The rebounding was even at 32 apiece, so they didn't hurt us on the boards. Malcom Simmons stepped up again (9 points, 10 rebounds) as he did last year in post-season. You have to say he's a big-game player."
Iverson's 3-pointer, NWC's only trey, cut the gap to 27-26, but the Indians' prized sophomore could never get going. New London intensified its halfcourt defense with Dunn, Childs-Harris, Special Rhodes and sub Khaleed Fields applying the pressure. A 14-3 Whaler run ensued, highlighted by Childs-Harris' steal and dunk and Fields' pass to Childs-Harris for a layup to make it, 41-29, with 2:37 left in the third quarter.
Dunn's dunk with 1:12 left closed the third quarter scoring with NL up, 43-33. Perhaps the only drama was whether Dunn, who had three fouls, would have to sit with foul trouble.
Northwest cut the lead to 43-37 with 6:40 left, but that was as close as the Indians would come. Keith Porter's layup, assisted by Dunn, put the Whalers in control, 61-46. New London shot 47 percent (25 of 53), overcoming some shaky ball-handling (18 turnovers) and free throw shooting (12 of 20) by attacking the paint with Dunn's penetration.
The scene of celebration was a 180-degree turn from the despair of New London's Class L final loss to Stratford at Mohegan last season. The Whalers shot less than 30 percent in that 51-47 loss. No way did they want to feel short-changed this year.
"Last year was on my mind during practice, in school, at home doing homework," Dunn said. "That sick feeling motivated us all season. It's almost a relief now that the year is over and we got redemption. I just wanted to show everyone I am a player and am able to lead the team to help us get a championship. I didn't want us to have the same feeling we had last year."
And now Parker and Co. can sit back and marvel at a 27-0 season, the school's 9th CIAC boys' basketball state title and perfect run to No. 1 in the state poll.
"Is it my best team ever," Parker said. "I'll have time to reflect on that, but they say you need great guards to have a great team. You can't do better than these two guards (Dunn and Childs-Harris). It's the Year of the Whalers, baby."