By Dave Ruden
RIDGEFIELD — Bridgeport Central boys basketball coach Barry McLeod was lamenting prior to Friday night’s game at Ridgefield the steady diet of zone defenses his team has been seeing.
It was a complaint lodged by McLeod’s star point guard, Tyler Ancrum, after the Hilltoppers needed two big defensive stops in the final minute to overcome poor foul shooting and come away with a hard-fought 66-62 win.
“Everyone wants to play a 2-3 against us and I don’t know why,” Ancrum said with a smile.
Of course, Ancrum is the reason why. Last year’s most valuable player in the FCIAC championship game is virtually unstoppable in the open court.
Case in point: On the final possession of the third quarter, Ancrum split two defenders before finding Antoine Pettway alone for an open layup that made the score 56-43. Ancrum followed a shot by Ridgefield’s Matt Brennan to open the fourth quarter by penetrating and getting the ball out to Ricky Grant for an open 3-pointer.
It was the ultimate irony: the Hilltoppers finally got to see a straight-up man defense in the second half from a program that until this year had made a 1-3-1 its trademark.
“It’s what we’re most comfortable with,” McClellan said. We had a hard time in our zone.”
Even without center Orhan Cecunjamin, the Hilltoppers’ leading scorer and rebounder who missed the game — McLeod hinted it is possible he could be out longer — for undisclosed reasons, they still found a different way to win and remain unbeaten at 8-0.
It should have been easier. Taking advantage of being able to up the tempo, Central used a 12-0 run in the fourth quarter to break a 39-39 tie and led by as many as 14 with seven minutes remaining.
But the Hilltoppers, who were 9 of 21 from the foul line, missed 7 of their next 11 free throws and watched nervously as Matt Brennan (from the outside) and Patrick Racy (inside) shot the Tigers (5-3) to within 63-60 with a minute left.
The last two errant shots, by Ancrum, gave Ridgefield the ball with a chance to tie. The Hilltoppers played lockdown defense on the final two possessions and the Tigers were unable to get a good shot off.
“That was terrible, that will never happen again,” Ancrum said of his foul shooting. “Even though it was close, we work hard together. We didn’t want to let them score.”
One of the Hilltoppers’ greatest strengths is their depth. Different players took over at different parts of the game. In the early going it was Shaquan Bretox, who scored 11 of his 16 points in the first quarter. Later in was Marcus Blackwell from the outside. He also finished with 16. Ancrum added 10 points and Dyshaun Pulliam had 9.
“They know someone on the bench can come in if they don’t give 100 percent and they know I will do that,” McLeod said. “They work hard in practice.”
McLeod is as candid a coach as there is — in any sport — in the FCIAC, and he is free with his criticism. You can tell he is fond of this team — he said as much prior to the start — even though it has played some games tighter than they needed to be.
“I think we have a lot of experience,” McLeod said. “We know we’re never out of it.”
The Tigers lost their third straight game after a 5-0 start but don’t even think about writing them off yet. The losses — to Stamford, Greenwich and Central — came by a combined 13 points to two unbeaten teams and one with just two losses.
Matt Brennan is one of the league’s best outside shooters in the FCIAC, finishing on Friday with 23 points on 6 3-pointers. Racy added 20, while point guard Charlie Irwin did an exceptional job handling Central’s pressure.
“It’s frustrating to be on the wrong end again but I’m proud of how well we fought,” McClellan said. “We have to grow up a little bit. We have to fight our way through it. We’ll be better in games 16-20.”
It had to be disheartening to have the chance to upset a team most think will not lose a game in conference play this year, and if the Hilltoppers were not so versatile the outcome would have been different.
For those looking to catch Central napping this winter, be forewarned. The players are not buying into the hype.
“I tell everybody, even though our names are in the newspaper and people are talking about us, we have to stay humble,” Ancrum said. “We are not the best team but a good team. We do what we’ve got to do to win games.”