STAMFORD — The records might not be what we are accustomed to, and because Saturday’s game had a noon tip at the start of school vacation the stands were half full, but the Trinity Catholic-St. Joseph boys basketball rivalry still fails to disappoint.
The latest edition, the Cadets’ 73-67 win, had all the usual ingredients. The score was close throughout, there were repeated lead changes in the second half, each of the team’s stars stepped up, and while there was the absence of a buzzer-beater, there was a good finish.
In a sense this game was more important than previous meetings, when one of the top seeds was on the line. On Saturday, the teams were playing to stay alive in the league playoff race.
“We played hard, they played hard,” said Trinity coach Mike Walsh, whose star guard, Tremiane Fraiser, put on a spectacular 30-point show. “I don’t think we made a lot of mistakes, they just made shots. Both teams really played well. Our guys rose to the occasion. It was a typical Trinity-St. Joseph game, but in my opinion the wrong team won.”
Walsh was smiling with that final sentence, referring more to his disappointment.
The Cadets, now at .500 overall at 8-8 and in league play with a 7-7 mark, have become one of the FCIAC’s most dangerous and intriguing teams. It wasn’t that long ago they were 2-6 and riding a five-game losing streak.
Arkel Ager, who according to the hype machine was going to be the league’s best player, was forced to sit out the first month because of academic ineligibility. When he returned, you could see the potential, but not the polish.
“There’s always pressure,” Ager said following Saturday’s game. “But we have a great team and I love these guys.”
Ager certainly looked like one of the league’s best players against the Crusaders. He finished with 26 points, was a factor on the boards and opened the fourth quarter with a pair of 3-point shots, the first starting a 13-0 run that broke open the game. He had 9 points during the spurt.
“The scouting report on Ager was he couldn’t shoot he ball, but he hit two big 3s in the quarter,” Walsh said. “Really huge. You could see why everybody was talking about him.”
Trinity’s Justice Page hit consecutive treys of his own in the final 2 1/2 minutes to cut the deficit to 63-62, but the Cadets went 8 for 8 from the foul line to pull away.
After winning two straight games to get to 4-6, and seeming on the verge of breaking out, the Cadets looked out of sync in losses to Greenwich and Trumbull.
Just as they were getting written off came the current winning streak. Ager has found his groove and the biggest recipient is guard Jon Dzurenda. Relieved of the burden of having to carry the team, he is getting more open looks and finished with 23 points. Team chemistry is no longer a liability.
“The other guys are starting to gel. We should have probably been gelling earlier, but we had to bring a couple of new guys along like Arkel and (Joe) Mangiamele,” said St. Joseph coach Chris Watts, referring to a guard who just became eligible after transferring from Notre Dame of Fairfield. “It’s not over now for us. These guys are playing confident. They are not just talking like they are confident but they are practicing like they are confident.”
St. Joseph, with four contests remaining, will be an underdog against Bridgeport Central, the game against Brien McMahon is a 50-50, and it will be favored against New Canaan and Fairfield Ludlowe. Three wins will get the Cadets in and maybe as high as the No. 6 seed. Going .500 will probably be sufficient to earn a playoff bid.
And after that? Westhill and Greenwich were knocked off on Saturday afternoon. While we have been fixated on the unpredictable battle for the final three league playoff spots, Greenwich has just a one-game lead over Ridgefield, Westhill and Stamford for the second through five spots. And if Stamford can win at Greenwich on Monday, it will own the tiebreaker over all three schools.
“They hit the floor and look like they want to win something,” Watts said of his team. “I tell the guys by the end of this thing we’ll be the most talked about team in Connecticut, and I honestly believe that. Because of the way we started. We had a horrible start and we’re starting to win some games. I said let’s get to the state tournament and then go from there.”
That goal was accomplished Saturday afternoon. Will the Cadets be the talk of the state? One step at a time. For now, they are certainly becoming the talk of the league, and no one would have predicted that a month ago.”