The Career Magnet Panthers turned in a dominant second half performance to turn a would-be defensive struggle into a one-sided affair, as they picked up a 59-42 road win over the New Canaan Rams in the first round of the four-team Tony La Vista Tournament Tuesday night. The Rams trailed just 24-19 at halftime but couldn't keep up with the Panthers in the second half.

Career Magnet got big games from Kenny Armstead and Kevin Hoff, who scored 19 and 14 points, respectively. Armstead's 19 points led all players, and he indicated that the key to taking over the game was a better defensive effort in the second half.

"We picked up the defense and came out with a lot of intensity," Armstead said. "We place a lot of importance on winning this tournament."

New Canaan struggled to find an offensive rhythm for most of the night, but coach Jeff Bussey was still able to take some positives out of the lopsided loss.

"Every game I hope we're going to get better. Overall our defense was not bad," Bussey said. "Almost all of [Career Magnet's] baskets came off of turnovers or put-backs. It is what it is and we've just got to battle through it."

The Rams managed to take a quick 9-4 lead and closed out the first quarter deadlocked at 12-12 before the Panthers took a 24-19 halftime lead into the locker rooms. With the game still very much in question, Career Magnet coach Larry Kelley delivered an emphatic message to his players during the break.

"We made one adjustment: Play harder. That's not to take anything away from New Canaan but we needed to play harder," Kelley said. "Each game and each practice you're trying to get better before the end of the season and that's what I've been preaching to these kids. You try to keep reiterating that every day."

Career Magnet seized total control of the game in the third frame, outscoring New Canaan 19-8 on the strength of 10 points from Armstead.

New Canaan senior co-captain and forward Chris Rama, who led the Rams with 12 points while also chipping in with 11 rebounds, said that his team can build off of playing a competitive first half against such a quality opponent.

"We had a good first half. We moved the ball well while trying to get inside," Rama said. "In the second half I would say they really hit the boards hard. We had a lot of trouble boxing out, and that was kind of a theme the whole game."

Scott O'Brien, New Canaan's other senior co-captain and guard, scored all seven of his points in the first half while forward/guard Graham Bradley added six points and pulled down five rebounds.

The 17-point win preserved Career Magnet's (5-0) unblemished record, and the Panthers will square off against Greenwich in the tournament championship. New Canaan (1-3) faces a critical match up against Darien in the consolation game. New Canaan's lone win of the 2010-11 season came in the form of a 51-33 home victory against Darien on Dec. 21. Both games were played Wednesday evening at New Canaan High School.

After the consolation game, New Canaan won't play again until Jan. 4, an away game against Harding. Rama, who was unaware which team the Rams would be playing in the consolation game, wasn't shy about saying that he anticipates a bounce back New Canaan win.

"I would say we should win no matter who we play [Greenwich or Darien]," Rama said. "If it's Darien, we already beat them so we know we can do it again. This kind of game [against Career Magnet] can help us later in the season against tough teams like St. Joe's and some of the Bridgeport teams."