Boys Basketball

Cardinals Pass IQ Test To Earn First Final Four Trip

CJ Byrd scored a game-high 23 points to lead Greenwich to a 59-54 Class LL quarterfinal win over New Britain. (Photo: Lauren Price)

CJ Byrd scored a game-high 23 points to lead Greenwich to a 59-54 Class LL quarterfinal win over New Britain. (Photo: Lauren Price)

GREENWICH — A phrase heard often the past two weeks is “Passing the Eye” test, an expression used for NCAA bubble teams that make up in the way they look for what all the other analytics say (see: SMU).

So perhaps, after it reached the Final Four for the first time in program history Monday night with a 59-54 win over New Britain in the Class LL quarterfinals, it is time to discuss how the Greenwich High School boys basketball team passes the IQ test.

The basketball IQ test, that is.

You can break down the Cardinals’ win by their usual strengths. The defense was stifling. CJ Byrd dominated with 23 points, playing even more assertively on the offensive end than usual. Every Greenwich player on the court made some contribution.

What hasn’t been talked about, except in a peripheral sense, all winter is how the Cardinals have few if any peers when it comes to intelligent play.

It was never more evident than Monday night.

New Britian's Craven Johnson tries to go up for a shot against Greenwich's Jonathan Palmer (5) and Alex Wolf. (Photo: Lauren Price)

New Britian’s Craven Johnson tries to go up for a shot against Greenwich’s Jonathan Palmer (5) and Alex Wolf. (Photo: Lauren Price)

“I thought this was absolutely the best team performance of the year by far,” Greenwich coach Bill Brehm. Considering the body of work he had to choose from, that’s the highest praise.

The 4th-seeded Cardinals (23-3) played with a lead the entire night. The score was tied at 0-0, 2-2, 4-4 and 26-26. The latter came after New Britain used a 9-0 run that ended with a putback to start the second half.

Another coach with a different cast of players may have been tempted into a timeout before halftime to stem the momentum. Brehm never had to consider it.

“I think it has always been that way,” Brehm said of the luxury of letting his team play through lapses, sort of like solving a puzzle. “If it is a bad enough momentum swing, I will take the timeout. I couldn’t be prouder of that. All the kids let us coach them. We kind of set it up and get out of the way.”

Like the resounding block he had on New Britain’s Curtis Hyman late in the third quarter, Byrd deflected the praise back.

“It’s all to the coaches,” Byrd said. “It starts in practice. They tell us that basketball IQ is of great importance to the game.”

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After New Britain tied the score the final time, the Cardinals responded with 7 unanswered points. Perhaps fittingly, it started with a short jumper by Griffin Golden.

Greenwich's Jonathan Palmer looks to score as New Britain's Craven Johnson defends. (Photo: Lauren Price)

Greenwich’s Jonathan Palmer looks to score as New Britain’s Craven Johnson defends. (Photo: Lauren Price)

“He’s got the best acumen on the team,” Brehm said. “He always has a nose for the ball.”

Alex Wolf, who finished with 15 points, scored off of an offensive rebound. Jonathan Palmer hit a free throw. Wolf dunked. Byrd scored on an acrobatic drive.

Five different players scored for the Cardinals in the third quarter. The ball always ended up in the right person’s hands, mainly because Tommy Povinelli had 11 assists. Bad decisions were infrequent.

Perhaps that was the reason Byrd was almost apologetic for his phenomenal play.

“I thought I was being too selfish,” Byrd said. “Once my teammates talked to me how I should keep taking the ball to the basket, I was OK.”

That might have been the Greenwich players’ best decision of the night. Byrd looked to drive and New Britain didn’t have an answer.

That was even more evident at the other end of the court. Brehm said that New Britain coach Todd Stigliano told him after the game that the Cardinals were the best defensive team he had seen all year.

“We wanted to let them shoot 3s and that’s kind of what we did,” Brehm said. “We didn’t let them drive a lot. Our goal was to slow the game down, slow their transition and give up nothing but 3s, if we give up anything.”

Now the Cardinals really step up in class, against top-seeded and unbeaten Fairfield Prep. They are 0-2 this year against Bridgeport Central. The Jesuits are arguably better, a team generally considered the best in the state.

It remains to be seen whether the Cardinals’ first trip to the semifinals will lead to their first championship game appearance.

What is certain is if the Cardinals lose, the cause will not be getting outsmarted.