STAMFORD — Moments after Fairfield Warde’s 67-60 win over Trinity Catholic tonight, both coaches spoke about the quest of qualifying for the FCIAC Tournament.
In the case of the Mustangs’ Ryan Swaller, it was coach-speak: his team, at 12-2 over all and 8-2 in league play, is a leading title contender.
For the Crusaders’ Mike Walsh, at 9-5, 6-5, his team is in a much more precarious situation because of some puzzling losses and maddening inconsistency.
After the events of the last 48 hours, the looming question is which team is capable of putting together three good games in five days to win the conference title?
Just two weeks ago Warde and Wilton were the heavy favorites. But, like the rest of the pool, they have a few liabilities to offset considerable assets. The Mustangs played poorly and lost to Darien on Wednesday, bolstering the case for the Blue Wave until, tonight, they lost to Fairfield Ludlowe.
Don’t look now, but the Falcons, after heaving their lineup raided in the offseason, have played hard, are well-coached and in the playoff hunt with a 4-5 league mark.
Wilton sustained injuries to its two best players and then suffered back to back losses to the Crusaders and, last night, Ridgefield, losing their unbeaten record. The Tigers, tossed aside after losing Brenden McNamara to a broken bone in his foot, were catapulted back into the talk after beating the Warriors on a night when McNamara returned.
The most consistent team has been Trumbull, which makes sense since it is 12-1 heading into tomorrow night’s rivalry match with St. Joseph. The Eagles lack “wow” factor, but they are fundamentally sound and play good defense, which this year goes even farther because there is not one dominant player capable of carrying a team for a long period.
Warde and Trinity Catholic started the year as favorites and tonight demonstrated reasons for hope and concern. The Mustangs had a 20-7 lead early in the second quarter and seemed on the verge of a road blowout before Trinity scored eight straight points. Warde is prone to defensive lapses and suffered several that allowed the Crusaders to go up by five points in the third quarter.
“Trinity is a very dangerous team,” Swaller said. “A lot of parts. They’re not real deep on the bench but their starting five can compete with anybody.”
Swaller could easily have been describing his own team, which puts the best five players on the court before the opening tip in the league.
Sean Conway had another strong game offensively, finishing with 20 points. Giacomo Brancato added 15 and Marcel Parsons scored 11.
When the Mustangs don’t let down on the defensive end they may be the best team; they broke the game open with a 12-2 fourth-quarter run fueled by turning steals into baskets.
“With our defense, the pressure on the guards, we’ve been letting guards dictate a lot of what they want to do,” Swaller said. “We got passing lanes, a lot of easy transition buckets. Against that team it’s hard to get a lot of halfcourt offense.”
Swaller was referring to the Crusaders’ Dutavio Contreil (16 points) and Dimitri Moise (team-high 20). They could be the best 1-2 punch in the league on a regular basis — if they played closer to the basket more often. Opposing coaches will gladly sacrifice a few 3-point shots to get them away from the paint, where they create matchup problems.
“We’ve got to put together stretches where we don’t get behind early,” Walsh said. “That hurt us tonight. The bottom line is the effort is there, we’ve got to learn how to play the game. In a close situation we have to learn how to get good shots. Sometimes we settle.”
Trinity could easily keep the stretch of consecutive champions from Stamford and Bridgeport if, as Walsh said, his players can solve the puzzle, but time is running out.
The Mustangs could easily win their first title, but a night in which they lapse defensively and go cold from the perimeter would be a lethal combination.
Then again, the outlook for the league changes on a nightly basis because most teams are having trouble putting two good games together back to back.
“It’s going to be fun, that’s all I can say,” Swaller said of the playoffs. “You’re going to lace them up with eight different teams and it’s going to be fun. Every team has strengths, every team has weaknesses. With that it’s who’s playing together and for some of us who’s shooting well. If we’re shooting well it’s going to be hard to play against us. It’s going to depend on who gets into a hot streak that week.”