By Dave Ruden
STAMFORD — He twisted, turned, spun and contorted to dribble through defenders or drive to the basket.
In a game he admitted was the best of his career, in a game that was the FCIAC’s best of the year so far, Jeremiah Livingston put the Westhill boys basketball team on his shoulders and carried it to a 78-75 overtime win over unbeaten Bridgeport Central on Friday night.
The same Hilltoppers team that was ranked No. 3 in the state and seemed destined in early December to roll through the conference unbeaten.
OK, it is unfair to give Livingston all the credit because this was a true team effort, but when he plays at the level he reached Friday it tends to eclipse all others on the court.
The Vikings (11-2) have played on a par with the top teams before, but this is easily their biggest regular-season win during coach Howard White’s tenure.
For Westhill now knows not only can it play with the best teams, but also beat them.
“Everybody picked it up today,” Livingston said after his career-best 43-point performance. “We knew there was going to be a big crowd and we wanted to beat the top-seeded team.”
Livingston made 15 of his 22 field goal attempts, mainly because they usually came from within three feet of the basket as Central (11-1) was unable to stop his penetration.
Livingston was the best player in the court, on this night outplaying Tyler Ancrum, the Hilltoppers’ terrific guard, who finished with 14 points but threw the ball away on their final possession when they were down by a point.
“The main thing with Jeremiah, I’m not going to say he played better than their star player but Jeremiah has been playing this type of ball all season,” White said. “I’m not taking anything away from Tyler.”
This game had more twists and turns than Livingston, who was a protagonist in the biggest one of the game.
The Vikings won in large part because their 1-2-2 zone early on totally slowed Central, which had difficulty attacking it and either threw the ball into traffic or settled for bad shots.
Westhill led by as much as 51-35 with 2 1/2 minutes left in the third quarter, a cushion it really needed.
“It really worked,” White said of his defense. “We really wanted to close the lanes down.”
That big lead quickly — really quickly — turned into a deficit when Central unleashed a furious rally and briefly demonstrated why it remains the team to beat in the conference.
The Hilltoppers scored 17 points in just under 4 1/2 minutes, forcing turnovers with their press, running the break and hitting open 3-point shots. Sha’Quan Bretoux finished with 24 points, while Ohran Cecunjamin scored 12 of his 16 points in the third quarter. Marcus Blackwell also finished with 16.
When Bretoux made a 3-point shot with 3:41 left in regulation, the Hilltoppers had a 66-60 lead.
“I knew when I looked in my kids’ faces they were not folding,” White said. “I looked when they were down six and they kept fighting.”
Brendan Thomas scored on the Vikings’ fourth try off the offensive boards and then CJ Donaldson was fouled on a drive.
Central coach Barry McLeod innocently waved his hand in disgust, but was assessed a technical foul for, the official admitted, waving his hand in disgust.
McLeod said afterward, on the record, “I never said a word.”
The call was a game-changer. The Vikings made all four foul shots and then Donaldson scored on a drive to put Westhill into a 68-66 lead. Cecunjamin’s basket with 1:58 left tied the game and turned out to be the final points in regulation.
The Hilltoppers took a pair of 3-point leads early in overtime before the Vikings put forth their final rally. Livingston scored on a drive, Donaldson made a pair of free throws and then Livingston added two more foul shots.
The fans soon emptied onto center court to celebrate with the players.
“This shows we can win the big game,” White said.
There are so many reason to like Livingston, but the best might be his perspective.
When he asked how important the outcome was to his team’s long-term goals, Livingston answered in his customary measured tone.
“We don’t want to get big heads,” Livingston said. “We still have games we have to win.”