By Dave Ruden
STAMFORD — The Ridgefield High School boys basketball team walked into the Westhill gymnasium Friday night, its 32 minutes of crisp basketball being formed into a question: Why not us?
Why not, indeed.
“If no one respects us, we’ll take it,” Tigers guard Charlie Irwin said after scoring 21 points in an impressive 64-54 win. “We will play hard every day.”
No one has been disrespecting the Tigers, but nobody has been really talking about them either. Ever since Kurt Steidl took his talents to Vermont — and much of his supporting cast left with him — and coach Carl Charles stepped down to concentrate full-time on his athletic director duties, not much has been known about Ridgefield (2-0).
At least for the first two games, and especially on Friday, the Tigers took the initial steps toward pounding that question mark into an exclamation point.
“This is no slight on Kurt, he was an amazing player for us, but we’re trying to teach these guys to play as a team,” said Andrew McClellan, who was elevated after three years as an assistant to head coach. “We do it together.”
Those four words pretty much summed up the Tigers’ performance. They didn’t do anything special, they just executed well. They played an undeviating man-to-man defense, which is very un-Ridgefield like.
“We’ve talked about this a lot, but with the personnel we have, this plays to what we’re about,” McClellan explained. “We’re scrappy, we dig in.”
Offensively, it was Ridgefield Redux. Dictate tempo. Find the open man. Get good looks.
Done, done, done.
Matt Brennan (game-high 23 points) hit 5 of them and Irwin added 3. With Patrick Racy scoring 12 points, it was a balanced attack.
“We just stuck together as a team,” Irwin said. “We all believe in each other.”
Brennan closed the first half with three straight 3-pointers in 90 seconds, as the Tigers used a 17-2 run to forge a 33-19 halftime lead.
Westhill (1-1), looking a little sluggish after winning at St. Joseph on opening night, made several second-half runs, but Irwin and Brennan shot them down twice.
After the Vikings’ Jeremiah Livingston hit two shots to help trim the deficit to 35-27, prompting a timeout, Irwin hit a wide-open 3 on the ensuing possession.
Westhill got within 51-48 following two free throws by CJ Donaldson with 4:19 left, leading to another Ridgefield timeout.
The Tigers came back out and patiently took nearly a minute off the clock before Brennan banged home a trey. He followed with a layup off a Westhill turnover and the final three minutes were basically cosmetics.
Zach Ward — who was described by McClellan as “kind of a glue guy” — aptly stuck to Livingston like adhesive. Livingston finished with a quiet 18 points, 23 fewer than in the opener when he lit up St. Joseph.
Westhill coach Howard White both credited the Tigers and put the blame on his players.
“They definitely dictated the outcome of the game,” White said. “They played us straight up. They totally took us out. They built that lead in the second quarter. That was huge.”
Asked if he felt his players might have been a little over-inflated after winning at St. Joseph, White said, “Yes. I saw that. That concerned me, that’s what we talked about in practice. We didn’t play up to our ability.”
The season is just three days old, and already two-thirds of the league has one win.
The Tigers are one of a handful with a pair.
“We’re excited,” McClellan said. “We play it one game at a time, one quarter at a time, one possession at a time. The FCIAC is loaded and open this year.”
Wide open. Many preseason expectations have already been shot down. Down but not out. This is a fluid conference. The storylines will be in constant flux.
But at least for now, the Tigers have made themselves an early headliner.
Asked if he thought his team was a legitimate contender, Irwin said, “Absolutely. We’re 100 percent confident in ourselves.”