It was the zenith of Barry McLeod’s 20-year coaching career, surmounting in resonance the FCIAC championship won two weeks ago and his two previous state championships.
Yet the emotion that McLeod felt late Saturday night, after the Bridgeport Central boys basketball team rallied from an 18-point halftime deficit for an improbable and enthralling 76-73 win over Fairfield Prep in the Class LL championship, earned the No. 2 spot in terms of resonance over the weekend.
Topping the poll came a day earlier, after the Hilltoppers concluded their final practice. McLeod intended to gather his players for a speech, but because of a lack of time it was never delivered.
“I was going to show a side of me I would have regretted the rest of my life,” McLeod said.
The Central players will never know the exact words, but a good bet would be that love and respect would have been included.
McLeod is high on the scale of most misunderstood FCIAC coaches, in any sport. He can be gruff and intimidating to the media who encounter him for the first time.
But spend a little time with him, check under the hood and you see not only a great coach, but someone who really understands how to reach kids who are often looking for open arms.
There have been two things evident about Central since opening day. It had as much talent as any team in the state — driven home by that exclamation point of a second half against Prep. And McLeod had a deep affection for his players.
“It has been a challenging bunch,” McLeod said during a telephone interview Sunday night. “They challenged me sometimes off the court. There were some squabbles. The last couple of years they really tried to do things the right way. This was a close group of guys. I didn’t know how close until maybe the last month.”
McLeod pointed to two players as evidence. First there was Sha’Quan Bretoux, who McLeod called the toughest matchup for opponents because of his versatility. He scored 12 points against Prep.
McLeod had to throw Bretoux off the team two years ago for not showing up for some practices without an excuse.
“He didn’t transfer. He came back and asked if he could run cross country,” said McLeod, who also coaches the sport. “He was out there, even by himself when it was drizzling and no one else was out there. Saturday night he thanked me for giving him a chance. I thanked him for making me happy I did it.”
Then there was the case of Marcus Blackwell, who put up a team-high 17 points against the Jesuits. McLeod named him a team captain. As a sophomore.
“He was just a Godsend,” McLeod said. “What I did didn’t please a lot of parents, naming a sophomore as a captain, but you could tell the kind of leader he was just by the way he walked the hallways and did everything. He could be a captain for me anytime.”
As for the state final, Central was dominated in the first half, which ended with it trailing Prep, 47-29.
“I told them it was the last time we are going to be seen together and did we want it to be like this,” McLeod said. “Going out like this would be embarrassing. You could see (Tyler) Ancrum was nervous. It was definitely the worst half he had maybe in his career. Did we want to go out like this? This isn’t the team I’ve been coaching the last two years.”
The players then asked McLeod to leave the room for a minute so they could talk amongst themselves.
“I wasn’t even thinking about winning but making the game respectable,” McLeod said. “I left them and they took it form there.”
There were also several incidents of hubris by the Jesuits that McLeod prefers to keep off the record, though it served to motivate his players.
Many people were puzzled that McLeod didn’t use the Hilltoppers’ vaunted press in the first half.
“I wanted to shy away from trying to trap them because they shot the ball so well,” McLeod said. “After being embarrassed in the first half we made the court look small.”
With nothing left to lose except pride, the Hilltoppers’ pressure harassed Prep into repeated mistakes and, eventually, submission. “We had an edge,” McLeod said. “I didn’t think their six guys could keep up with my nine guys. We played outstanding, phenomenal defense. It’s the biggest comeback I have seen in high school basketball by far. We turned the tables on them.”
There have been rumors McLeod would step down after the season. He was told to have hip replacement surgery on Jan. 31 but delayed it because “I didn’t want to quit on the team.”
It will now be performed next week, days after his birthday on Sunday.
“I’m not sure, I am going to see how I feel,” McLeod said. “They say I am going to feel 100 times better, feel 10 years younger.”
Whatever the future holds, McLeod will always have what he said is his greatest win.
But he takes away from the season so much more.
“These guys just gave me everything they had,” he said. “Even those that didn’t start. It is going to be hard because we are going to be losing six or seven players, not one or two, and that’s a lot. This was just a special group.”