By Dave Ruden
NORWALK — Mufasa Abdul-Basir paused while talking with the media Friday night, a reflective moment, before discussing an enemy that was initially more imposing than any 11 defenders ever could be.
St. Joseph’s star running back had — literally — helped carry his team to an exhausting 42-35 win over Brien McMahon. The outcome secured the Cadets’ first appearance in the FCIAC championship game, as well as a first-round home game in the CIAC Class M playoffs.
Abdul-Basir was asked which was more satisfying.
“To me they’re both very important,” Abdul-Basir said. “Last year I was unfortunate to fail off and I was determined to help bring the team an FCIAC championship.”
The nature of the conversation swerved quicker than Abdul-Basir did during a school-record 268-yard rushing performance and 4 touchdowns, including the game-winner with 7:32 remaining.
In a contest that see-sawed into a last-team-with-the-ball-wins flow, McMahon drove down to the Cadets’ 19-yard line following Abdul-Basir’s final score. But on fourth down, St. Joseph’s Dylan Ryan made an interception, the needed cushion.
Abdul-Basir then carried the ball seven straight times for 65 yards and, more importantly, four first downs that allowed the Cadets to run out the clock.
“People around me helped me out,” Abdul-Basir said of his academic difficulties. “The coaching staff at St. Joseph, all the teachers. I learned how to focus in the classroom as well as on the field. My dream was for a moment like this. The defense was struggling and Coach Dell gave me the ball, and when I got the ball I showed what I can do.”
St. Joseph coach Joe Della Vecchia seemed a little surprised when he learned of his running back’s admission for the reason he missed the end of last season.
“He went through a tough time a year ago,” Della Vecchia said. “There were some things personally that were tough. He’s grown up a lot as a person. He had a great quarter at school and he worked his butt off.”
The latter four words were most applicable to his performance Friday night. The Cadets needed every one of Abdul-Basir’s yards against a McMahon team that was not only looking to prove its legitimacy as a contender, but more importantly keep its state playoff hopes alive.
Trailing at the half, 27-14, the Senators drove 96 yards with their first possession and 88 with the second to take their lone lead of the night, 28-27.
From there it was two proud teams throwing haymakers. Abdul-Basir ran 20 yards on the first play after McMahon took the lead, 39 on the next to put the Cadets (9-1) back on top.
Matt Downey answered by hitting David Daniel with a 19-yard pass six plays later to tie the game at 35-35. Five plays after that Abdul-Basir scored the winning touchdown.
The Senators (7-2) were then unable to score for the first time in the second half. They were that close.
“I’m so proud of the kids and the way they played,” said McMahon coach A.J. Albano, who deservedly was not forced to talk about his team from a defensive posture, first for not playing a tough schedule in going 7-0, then for suffering a 44-7 loss last week to Ridgefield. “It says a lot about our character. The kids could have packed it in but they didn’t. We didn’t play well the last time and today we played a whole lot better. This was a state playoff game. This was our first round of states and we went toe to toe with them.”
On another night, the Senators’ effort would have been rewarded in the standings.
But Abdul-Basir, who had been through a lot to put himself in a position to help carry his team, would not be denied.
“I was on fire early in the game and I was hoping the defense could get one stop and give our offense the edge,” Abdul-Basir said. “No one said this was going to be easy.”