FAIRFIELD — Whew.
That was the feeling Saturday night, after Fairfield Ludlowe’s game-winning attempt at the end of overtime missed and four FCIAC boys basketball tournament quarterfinal games that lasted 9 1/2 hours had come to a conclusion.
Overtime was certainly one of the themes. Only the day’s opening game, between Westhill and Stamford, was completed in regulation. The middle two games took two overtimes to decide a winner.
In all there were 21 quarters of basketball. Fairfield’s two schools distinguished themselves but only came away with respect after each suffered heartbreaking defeats. Stamford’s downward spiral continued, as did Westhill’s revival. Danbury and Trumbull, the top two seeds, moved on to the semifinals, but barely.
If those were some of the storylines, Saturday proved both to be the deliverance of preseason expectations and a microcosm of the season to date. The trade off for poor play was the excitement of close games spurred by the most balanced eight-team playoff field in recent memory.
In what has become almost an annual tradition where the No. 1 seed is either sent home early or pushed to the brink, Danbury was forced into overtime by Fairfield Ludlowe, aided by the advantage of playing on its home court and a skill set not that far off from the Hatters’.
Truth be told, the problems that plagued the league as a whole this season unsurprisingly carried into Saturday. Teams continued to be offensively challenged. Wilton and Trumbull were the only winners to reach 50 points, and the Eagles needed double overtime to surpass that margin by a point.
Better free throw shooting would have prevented at least two of the games from going into overtime. The same could be said for more careful protection of the ball; this has been the year of the turnover.
None of this was unexpected; it has been the case for two months. What was different was how the exciting finishes shoved the quality of play from the forefront, where it had been, to the background.
During the regular season, the payoff was a close playoff race that was not decided until the final night. On Saturday the largest margin of victory was just seven points. The total for all four games combined was 17. In contrast, the average margin of victory in the first five FCIAC girls playoff games was 19 points.
All of the trudging for baskets during the afternoon session was worth putting up with just for the reward of watching Wilton and Fairfield Warde race up and down the court in what turned out to be the game of the year so far. The Mustangs’ Antonio Brancato, stepping up with his older brother, Giacomo, and two other starters confined to the bench after fouling out, made game-tying last-second shots at the end of regulation and the first overtime before the Warriors showed the resolve to get to the semifinals for the third time in four years. Matt Kronenberg, with 39 points, helped carry them over the finish line.
If the three other games were tortoises, Wilton and Warde where the hares, racing the court at what seemed like breakneck speed in comparison. Scores in the 60s this season have been as rare as Republican presidential candidates sharing pleasantries. Even the 50s, as we saw the rest of the day, were a difficult barrier.
So now we head into Tuesday’s semifinals with the top two seeds, a five and a six. Danbury and Trumbull will again be favored, but as with the quarterfinals, cases can be made for the lower seeds. Westhill has been unspectacular but very steady in winning six of its past seven games. The Eagles lost one of their edges when their 6-5 center, Ben McCullough, was ejected in the win over Ridgefield following two wreckless and needless technical fouls. His replacement, Alex Recker, is an equally capable rebounder but not scorer. Trumbull will again look to guard Jack Moore, who appears to be pulling away from the pack as the league’s most outstanding player this year.
If Moore has had the bigger year, a case can be made, given the composition of the rosters, that the Vikings’ Tyrell Alexander is more valuable to his team’s success. Likely, he will need a teammate to step up and offer scoring help, as Parish Rowell did against Stamford.
In the nightcap, Danbury has the superior athletic ability and will have a large advantage on the boards, as is often the case for Wilton’s opponents. But the Warriors can play with anybody when they are making their 3-point shots, and they have the intangible of being a lovable underdog for non-partisan fans.
The head says the league’s undisputed two top teams will advance and meet Thursday night and one will end a long title drought. But there will be little surprise if Wilton or Westhill crash the final party.
They may just have to work overtime for the invite.