FAIRFIELD — There have been teams with more talent, teams stocked with major Division I players, teams that won with greater ease.
But for the Ridgefield boys basketball team, the opponent last night was not the history book, but rather its biggest rival on the other side of the border. And in an off year for the sport in the FCIAC, with a tournament field that had greater overall equanimity than any in recent memory, it was trite yet true to predict the champion was going to come down to which one of eight teams could play with the greatest consistency over three games in five days.
That proved to be the Tigers, the pick by many league coaches and a team that was not a preferred opponent on the eve of the playoffs.
Last night’s 68-64 double-overtime win over Wilton gave the Tigers their first league title in the sport. It did not come easily, but nothing did for Ridgefield, both during the season and in the playoffs. If anyone wants to dispute the Tigers’ status among previous winners, let them scan the annals to find a team that needed a last-second quarterfinal shot to avert going to overtime, then had to survive a pair of double-overtime games, the first coming after a 30-foot game-tying shot at the end of regulation.
The word is resilience.
In terms of personnel, Ridgefield was pretty much a similar-shaped piece in the playoff puzzle. What helped it emerge from the pack were two key qualities: the ability to make fewer mistakes and, more so, to find ways to win.
The Tigers could have gone down a number of times when they were 3-4 in league play and struggling to find an identity with their best player, Brenden McNamara, sidelined with a broken bone in his foot. McNamara returned, ironically enough, in the regular-season meeting against Wilton.
The victory against the Warriors was the third one in a streak that saw the Tigers close the conference season yesterday with 11 wins in their final 12 games. There was a pattern of good chemistry and collaboration.
It sometimes was not glamorous. Ridgefield, to use a word repeated by McNamara after the game, had to grind. McNamara himself was a perfect example. He did not enjoy his best shooting night, but that did not deter him from commanding the ball and taking it to the basket during critical stretches. He finished with a team-high 18 points and was named most valuable player.
Chris Longo had two 3-point shots in the first half and just another pair of free throws through the first overtime, then stepped up into more of the primary role he assumed a year ago. With McNamara and center Chris Laudati on the bench after fouling out, he provided the tipping point.
Zach Esemplare in many ways was the poster child for the Tigers: the reluctant shooter who made two daring shots at the end or regulation and the first overtime against Danbury, and then scored 12 very underrated points last night.
In many ways the night was a spectacle for the FCIAC. Wilton has become a fan favorite since Joel Geriak arrived because of an uptempo style reliant on 3-point shots. The Warriors will be left to wonder what would have happened to their season if not for injuries to key players, which continued last night when Jack Wood learned two hours before the start that he was finished for the season with a knee injury, and then Jack Williams hurt his knee for the third time in a month and left for good in the third quarter.
At one point Wilton was 10-0 and the team to beat. And we would be remiss in not singling out Matt Kronenberg, heroic in a 31-point effort that nearly carried the Warriors to a still-elusive crown.
Last night was a celebration for both the two towns and the FCIAC. There is no way to be certain that Wilton and Ridgefield brought the largest student sections ever to a final, but those who have been around cannot recall the stands being packed with more teen fans in school colors. They charged Fairfield University’s sold-out Alumni Hall with an energy that has not been seen in the sport in years.
Without an obvious favorite, why not a year with a final between two newbies on a night that will not long be forgotten in either Ridgefield or Wilton?
And for the first champion outside the cities of Stamford and Bridgeport since 2010, why not a team that down the stretch was the surest in executing the fundamentals that are becoming a lost craft in this SportsCenter Top 10 world.
It wasn’t a perfect year for FCIAC basketball.
But Ridgefield proved the perfect champion.