WILTON — They have the better athletes and we have the better team.
Those were the words Ridgefield coach Andrew McClellan said to me 20 minutes before the tip of tonight’s FCIAC boys basketball title game against Trinity Catholic.
About two hours later the scoreboard revealed McClellan was right: Ridgefield 63, Trinity Catholic 58.
After losing to the Crusaders by 29 points during the regular season, the top-seeded Tigers played smarter, with more poise and made fewer mistakes. The result was their second straight title and third in four years.
“I said we are going to try and make it a basketball game and I’ll take my guys as a basketball team up against anybody,” McClellan said. “That’s a really good team and I thought my boys were great tonight. I thought the beginning of that game was like a championship back and forth, both teams flying around, two really good FCIAC teams.”
James Rush opened the game with a 3-pointer for the Tigers (21-2) but then the second-seeded Crusaders (17-6), with a historical backdrop on their side, went on a run to take an 11-6 lead after a floater by Rashen Fisher.
Trinity went ahead by playing great defense, but defending its basket proved unsustainable throughout much of the tournament. The Tigers closed the period on an 18-2 run and had six 3-pointers in eight minutes, including three by Johnny Briody, who finished with 15 points and was named the MVP.
Briody played two great games in the home of his school’s biggest rival and another earlier in the regular season against Wilton.
“I don’t know what it is,” Briody said. I think every time it’s a great atmosphere. My guys get me the ball where I need it and they happen to fall every time. Who knew I would love Wilton so much?”
Ridgefield never relinquished the lead, though the Crusaders made several runs. Malcolm Newman carried them in the first half, when he scored the final 12 points to cut the deficit to 32-27.
Trinity’s play was completely dictated by its defense, and it was pretty much all or nothing tonight, with some stifling pressure offset by breakdowns.
This was the last FCIAC final for the Crusaders, on the 50th anniversary of their first title. It was announced last week the school will close at the end of this year because of declining enrollment, which has greatly affected the athletic program.
The Tigers had a 50-39 lead early in the fourth quarter but Trinity rallied and twice got within two points. But each time Rush, who finished with 15 points and played perhaps his best game of the season, answered with baskets.
Luke McGarrity (11 points) and Chris Knachel (10 points) get most of the acclaim for their scoring, but the Tigers, besides an army of role players for different situations, always have different players step up offensively. Tonight it was Rush and Briody.
“We both talked during our walkthrough and said this would be our game, just big-time confidence and we just showed up,” Rush said. “Taking 3s and they went in. It’s about experience. We’ve been here before, we know what’s going down. It’s also confidence too. We have to be ready for the moment.”
The Tigers have been ready for moments all season long. It is hard to remember a team that played with greater chemistry in recent years, and that in the end was their biggest asset.
“We knew Trinity has great athletes, strong, can dunk,” McGarrity said. “We played our game, we were a great team and we knew we could get it done. This whole year, this whole tournament it was a game of runs and every time they make one we just make one back. Our whole team is just filled with great players. If one of us doesn’t have a great shooting game the next person is stepping up.”
And now, with three titles in the last four years — and the regular-season title in the fourth — the Tigers own another distinction that once belonged to the Crusaders: occupying the perch as the league’s best program.
And Ridgefield was able to do it by bouncing back from a 29-point defeat against an opponent that did indeed have the superior talent but wasn’t able to play as well as a team.
“We were super confident and wanted a piece of them from the first game,” McClellan said. “We didn’t show them what we are about. The boys wanted to show everyone what we’re about, especially them. We were just focused in on this one game.”