WILTON — Antonio Brancato sat in the bleachers at Alumni Hall for last season’s FCIAC boys basketball championship game and, like most of the capacity crowd, got his first taste of the Ridgefield-Wilton rivalry.
“I just remember so much emotion from both teams and I remember how much it means to each of these schools to get the W,” said Brancato, who had left the Fairfield Warde team several weeks earlier.
Tonight, in the schools’ first meeting since the Tigers’ double-overtime win, Brancato was on the court and became the lead protagonist.
Brancato, who transferred to Wilton, finished with 33 points and was a major but not the sole reason behind a 73-67 win at the Zeoli Field House.
“To come out and get it tonight for these guys is awesome,” Brancato said. “To play in it was awesome. That was one of the funnest games I’ve ever played in in my life. To come out with a win means everything. Now we just have to keep going forward.”
Scott Cunningham added 24 points for the Warriors (8-4, 6-3 over all), who made all nine of their 3-point shots over the first three quarters.
More important for Wilton than avenging a pair of defeats last year to the Tigers and handing them their first loss in conference play was getting a much-needed quality victory, especially after falling already to Fairfield Warde and, most recently, Trinity Catholic.
“It’s a big win in the fact that against the top teams we’ve played so far we haven’t done well,” Wilton coach Joel Geriak said. “The game today, we couldn’t let this go.”
The Warriors, after overcoming an early nine-point deficit, led by as many as 14 points late in the third quarter. Ridgefield, which has made a habit of staging late rallies, got within 69-67 on Chris Knachel’s 3-point shot with 42 seconds left.
Brancato was fouled on the ensuing possession and made two free throws, and later sealed the outcome with two more foul shots with six seconds remaining.
“He wants the ball no matter what in a big situation,” Geriak said of Brancato. “He’s new to the rivalry, though you wouldn’t know it. The energy he had. He wanted to be here.”
Brancato has become an increasing factor as he gets more comfortable with the Warriors’ style, giving them another weapon both on the perimeter and going to the basket, the means for many of his points tonight after starting on the bench.
“As soon as I jumped into the game I had aggression,” Brancato said. “A lot of the pick and rolls they switched their bigs onto me so when that happened I was attacking their big. Toward the end they started to come up on me so just one quick dribble and I went by. Just attacking all night.”
During one stretch Brancato and Cunningham scored 25 of the team’s 28 points to help the Warriors turn an 18-9 deficit late in the first quarter into a 34-26 halftime lead.
“We had to change something because they weren’t missing so we went to the man to man to try and get a little bit more energy out of us,” Geriak said. “That changed the tempo of the game and we got about six to eight points after that little stretch and we played much better defense all in all.”
James St. Pierre had a spectacular game for Ridgefield (10-3, 9-1), finishing with 28 points. Twelve came in the final quarter.
“They made more plays than we did tonight,” Ridgefield coach Andrew McClellan said. “I don’t think we played a great game. They played really well and had two kids having career nights shooting the you-know-what out of the ball. A minute left we are down two. We’ve got to get better. I thought our intensity, detail on defense was sloppy tonight. I think that happens from winning nine straight games in the FCIAC. The kids lose a little intensity.”
Brenden McNamara, a focus of Wilton’s defense, ended up with 16 points.
“(St. Pierre) hit some big shots, McNamara we tried to keep off the boards as best we could,” Geriak said. “McNamara crashes better than anybody in the league. He gets up there and gets some boards. Make him shoot from outside. He hit one or two 3s but all in all we did a good job on him. They cut it down to two and they didn’t let the game get away from us, they finished it. It’s nice being at home for the first time in two weeks, that helps.”
There are still six games to go in league play. Ridgefield is now in a three-way tie for first place with Trinity Catholic and Danbury, teams it has beaten.
“The kids continue to play well in the fourth quarter and come back,” McClellan said. “You saw it again, they made some free throws, they made some more plays down the stretch.”
Tonight’s game was played before a large crowd, including large student sections.
“It’s not even close. Not even in the same league. I feel that Warde-Ludlowe is more of a friendly match,” Brancato said in making the comparison to the rivalry he was a part of the three previous seasons. “This is like pure we want to win.”