FAIRFIELD — The talk started not long after the Bridgeport Central boys basketball team won the FCIAC title over Trinity Catholic last March, capping a late-season surge.
The Hilltoppers had all of their major players returning. There was only one scenario under which this year would not be considered a disappointment.
And that was with a second straight title.
“I told them this yesterday and today, I give you a lot of credit,” Central coach Barry McLeod said, moments after his players made good on that repeat, coming away with a hard-fought 80-72 win over Greenwich Thursday night at Fairfield Warde. “You had the bull’s-eye on your chest from day one. You probably had the bull’s-eye last year the first day after this tournament. You had it all year long. It didn’t really affect you.”
The top-seeded Hilltoppers (22-1) won for a variety of reasons. Bottom line: they had the deepest and most talented roster. They played a relentless pressure defense.
And they had point guard Tyler Ancrum, who went back-to-back in the most valuable player department, finishing with 26 points and 7 assists. He made six free throws in the last 1:40 to secure the win.
“I wasn’t missing any foul shots,” said Ancrum with a smile, discussing the one part of his game that falls short of being exemplary. “I want the ball in my hands at all times.”
That is where McLeod also wants it. Ancrum was a big reason the Hilltoppers finished with four players in double figures — Orhan Cecunjamin added 18 points, Dondre Daniels 11 and Marcus Blackwell 10.
Greenwich (20-3) proved a worthy finalist. It got 29 points from CJ Byrd and 22 from Alex Wolf.
The Cardinals kept the game close most of the way. Their biggest deficit was 33-22 midway through the second quarter, but they closed it to 5 points at halftime.
But every time Greenwich got close, the Hilltoppers responded, most notably in the third quarter, when a 3-pointer by Byrd cut the deficit to 46-45. Central answered with a 9-2 run, the last 5 points coming from Ancrum.
On this night, like every one except a road loss to Westhill, the Hilltoppers had an answer.
“It’s been really crazy,” Ancrum said. “Everyone always wants us to do better. We actually did feel a little pressure. Everyone wanted our head.”
If the Central players were being squeezed, it was internalized. This was a senior-laden team that just had fun playing ball, especially on the defensive end of the floor.
“No secret, that’s our bread and butter,” Sha’quan Bretoux said. “We did a good job getting to our spots. We felt like we had a target on our backs. We adjusted.”
Greenwich played well enough to win on most nights, but there were too many turnovers — some unforced — to pull off the upset.
Barry McLeod is one of the most misunderstood coaches in the league — in any sport — because he can sometimes come across as gruff and aloof. But the expression on McLeod’s face usually doesn’t match what he is feeling inside.
And all year long, it was obvious that he loves this team as much as any he has coached.
“It’s coming to an end,” McLeod said he told his players prior to tipoff. “In a good way or a bad way, it’s coming to an end. It was a little melancholy before the game.”
McLeod was anything but afterward, walking around the gymnasium with eight championship medals around his neck.
“They really wanted this again,” McLeod said. “I tip my hat off to them. It wasn’t easy. We almost got knocked off in the first game.”
The quarterfinals was the most likely time to catch Central. And St. Joseph almost cleared the path for Greenwich and the rest of the field, until the Hilltoppers, with Ancrum saddled on the bench with foul trouble most of the night, blocked a last-second shot.
Once the Hilltoppers advanced to the Final Four, back under the spotlight, they rallied around rather than succumbed to the expectations. It brought out their best.
Which is why Bretoux said after the game,” This is a little more special, because we did it a second time.”