BRIDGEPORT — The locker room door was closed for about 20 minutes. Before it opened, and the Greenwich High School boys basketball coaching staff emerged, there were about 12 rounds of applause.
When you have just completed the best season in program history, you don’t want to turn off the lights. And with each extra second the Cardinals remained in that locker room, it was another second before saying goodbye.
“It’s been a great season, it has been a great group of kids,” Greenwich coach Bill Brehm said following Wednesday night’s 59-41 loss to top-seeded and unbeaten Fairfield Prep at Webster Bank Arena. “Every season is not like this season, and we let it out.”
Brehm admitted to shedding tears, which had nothing to do with his team’s uncharacteristic disappointing performance and more with the adoration for his players.
“It got very emotional,” said Greenwich center Alex Wolf. “I’m proud of all of our players. We didn’t want it to end. Playing in an arena like this. It was pretty amazing.”
This was Greenwich’s first trip to the Final Four, and there was great encouragement on the game’s opening possession, when Wolf blocked a shot by Paschal Chukwu, the Jesuits’ irrepressible 7-2 center.
But the Chukwu effect was the most important of the game, and often times it was not something he did, but his mere presence on the court.
Chukwu finished with 10 points, including three impressive alley-oop dunks. But the Cardinals acted like Chukwu was going to jump out at them on every shot, even when he was nowhere to be found.
That is a credit to the great defensive player the Providence-bound player is. The Cardinals (23-4) set a team record for victories in a season as much for their savvy as their skill.
But on Wednesday their shot selection, to be polite, was questionable. Wolf, who finished with 9 points, strayed too far from the basket. And CJ Byrd, who led Greenwich with 12 points, saw his drives to the basket result in shots that went high off the backboard.
“I thought at times we did beat ourselves,” Brehm said. “Turning the ball over here and there.”
Chukwu was no stranger to Brehm; his first two years were at Trinity Catholic. But this was a different Chukwu.
“He’s certainly evolved since we last saw him,” Brehm said. To be fair, the Cardinals were going to need to play flawlessly to have a chance. Keith Pettway, one of four Prep players in double figures with 12 points, did a good job running the offense and getting to the basket. Thomas Nolan and Ryan Foley, a pair of juniors, added 11 apiece.
But Chukwu is the person who makes the Jesuits a championship caliber team, and as Wednesday night demonstrated, he is effective not just because of what he can do but because of what he might do.
“I played outside more,” Wolf said. “I play more of a post game but I was not going to take the hook shot like I usually do. They play great defense. We definitely weren’t executing well. With Paschal in the middle, it is hard to find the open man.”
Greenwich stayed close for the first 11 minutes, and was tied at 15-15 after two free throws by Griffin Golden.
Pettway’s jump shot ignited an 11-0 run and the Cardinals never recovered.
“That was the separation that started the whole thing,” Brehm said.
Greenwich got within 26-20 on Tommy Povinelli’s 3-point shot to open the second half, but Prep scored 18 of the next 22 points to make the score 44-24 early in the fourth quarter.
“You focus so much on him,” Brehm said, referring to Chukwu, “and it takes you out of your game.”
Wolf was the last player to leave the Greenwich locker room. He admitted there was a melting pot of emotions.
“In the first quarter we fought pretty hard,” Wolf said. “Once they had the lead, we couldn’t figure it out.”
Wolf paused and sighed.
“Still it was a great season,” he said.