STAMFORD — Perhaps the Westhill High School boys basketball team’s 78-75 overtime win over Bridgeport Central on Friday night, after three days of digestion, is not the upset it seemed at the final buzzer.
For one, the Hilltoppers, who still possess the FCIAC’s best talent, had given signs of being beatable. They were coming off a 5-point win over Wilton. There was a 4-point escape at Ridgefield and victories over Brien McMahon and Norwalk in a three-game span by a combined 6 points.
There have been few routs. The two biggest came against Harding and Bassick, city rivals.
If there is a concern for Central coach Barry McLeod, it is two weaknesses. His team still does not look completely comfortable handling the steady diet of zone defenses being thrown its way.
Tyler Ancrum, the explosive point guard and team catalyst, admitted he has been frustrated by the inability to get out on the fast break. When the Hilltoppers are able to play transition ball, Ancrum looks like an excited puppy being let outside for the first time in a week.
Second, the Hilltoppers have struggled from the free-throw line. It almost cost them against Ridgefield and was a problem against the Vikings.
But this game was as much about what Westhill did right as what Central lacked. For one, the Vikings’ 1-2-2 defense was particularly effective. The Hilltoppers are a pretty good shooting team from the outside, but not on this night.
The Vikings needed all of the 16-point lead they built to stave off a furious Central comeback that was aided by a controversial call we will get to in a moment.
“We weren’t ready to play,” McLeod said. “Then we decided to play and got into the spots on the floor we should have been. You can’t spot a good team a 16-point lead.”
Westhill was able to force turnovers and get guard Jeremiah Livingston opportunities to penetrate. This is a year when there are a number of good players but less than a handful of really good ones compared to past seasons.
Livingston is one of the few in the very good category. When he is on, like Friday night, he can pick a team up and carry it. He finished with a career-high 43 points.
“The kid just killed us,” McLeod said. “The kid shredded us.”
While Ancrum deservedly gets a lot of attention, Livingston has forced his way into the discussion regarding the league’s most valuable player. When he goes off, as he has several times, there may be no player more adept at taking over a game.
CJ Donaldson is a perfect complement in the backcourt, and while the frontcourt gets little attention, it provides both the necessary support and chemistry.
The Vikings’ win was overshadowed in some respects by what was the biggest turning point in the game. Fueled by a punishing press, the Hilltoppers scored 17 points in just under 4 1/2 minutes to forge a 6-point lead late in regulation.
Westhill got a basket back, then the ball. Donaldson was fouled on a drive. McLeod, unhappy with the call, waved his hand in disgust. Whistle. Technical foul.
The official involved — we won’t mention his name — admitted to McLeod the technical was assessed for nothing more than the benign action. It was the talk of the coaching community for 48 hours, prompting many to wonder if there is a process to try to get the best officials assigned to the most important games.
The Vikings made four straight free throws and a basket on the subsequent possession. Six-point play, two-point lead.
While it was a major turnaround, it does not take away from the Vikings’ win. They had scored and had possession after Central’s run, so there was a degree of stabilization after the rally. And the Hilltoppers had plenty of chances to win the game in both regulation and overtime.
It was the FCIAC’s best boys basketball game of the year to date. If it gets surpassed, I hope I’m there.
Central’s loss offers hope for the rest of the league. And at 11-2, the Vikings are one of the challengers at the head of the line.
“This was huge,” Livingston said. “We just knocked off one of the undefeated teams ahead of us.”
Beware The Crusaders
Everyone seems surprised by the five-game winning streak that has propelled the Trinity Catholic boys basketball team to a 6-6 record and back into the FCIAC playoff race.
The bigger surprise is that the Crusaders had fallen into such an early hole in the first place. Sure there was inexperience, but with enough talent to at the very least be the .500 team it now is.
Tremaine Fraiser has really stepped up his game the past two weeks and is playing like one of the league’s best players. And Neno Merritt, who just returned from an injury sustained during football season, provides inside strength that has been lacking.
The Crusaders will be in good shape with a win at Norwalk on Tuesday night, though they still have Harding and Ridgefield on the schedule before closing out the regular season with Greenwich and Westhill.
Talent-wise, the Crusaders should be at least a middle seed in the FCIAC. They are finally starting to play that way.
No. 1 Greenwich (12-0) vs. No. 8 Trumbull (6-6). You could put two other teams in the 8th spot without complaint. By the end of the season it might be a team with a .500 record in conference play. For now, we will give the Eagles their turn.
No. 2 Bridgeport Central (11-1) vs. Harding (8-5). The Hilltoppers might look back a month from now at last Friday as the best thing to happen to them.
No. 3 Westhill (11-2) vs. No. 6 Trinity Catholic (6-6). The Presidents may have the better record, but I’m jumping the Crusaders over them based on how they are playing right now.
No. 4 Ridgefield (9-3) vs. No. 5 Stamford (8-4). I would love to see this meeting actually play out. Two teams that play better than their talent levels.