WILTON — To borrow a line from Vince Vaughn’s character Trent Walker in the great comedy Swingers, “Our little baby’s all grows up…Our little boy is all grows up tonight.”
That was the sentiment which first came to my mind last night, as Wilton exploded from a 10-point halftime deficit for a 75-65 win over Fairfield Warde in a battle between for now (an unhealthy Danbury is the X-factor) the clear-cut two top teams in the FCIAC.
The Warriors have been cast as the lovable darlings for the past two years, in part because of their pleasing style of play, in part because of their unspectacular past. They were without a doubt the non-partisan favorites.
But despite the ascension, there were no titles, no trips even to a championship game. Wilton was a good appetizer before the big boys took over.
Not anymore. Use the moth-to-butterfly or any similar analogy, the Warriors took a giant step last night by winning what looks like the regular season game of the year, at least until Danbury gets healthy, between two teams that were unbeaten.
“In this environment, against a team that is not a rival, to bring in a crowd like this is amazing for the program,” Wilton coach Joel Geriak said of the fan section that took up nearly the entire bleachers behind one basket (to be fair, Warde is currently in midterms). That being said, we won, regular season game, we’ve got to get ready for Darien.”
Geriak was referring to his team’s next opponent, on Tuesday.
The Warriors opened the slightest of separation to assume the title of team to beat, one the Mustangs would have held if they had been able to maintain their early lead.
The feeling of several league coaches I have spoken to is that Warde gets a slight edge for having a better starting lineup but the Warriors hold an advantage of being deeper. That depth certainly was a factor in going on a 34-11 run for nearly the first 13 minutes of the second half.
Wilton got the usual contributions from Matt Kronenberg and Jack Williams, their two most recognizable stars. Equally important was the work of two less heralded players, Kyle Maatallah and Robbie Hermann, who scored their combined 16 points in the second half and were integral to the spurt.
“Certainly we have that stigma that we’re a live-by-the-three, die-by-the-three team, we have that stigma, but we have guys who can slash to the hoop, play hard,” Kronenberg said. “Even though we’re small we played fundamentally sound and we showed that tonight when the 3 wasn’t going down in the first half.”
It is interesting that Kronenberg chose to use a word with a negative connotation to describe Wilton’s reputation, but he was accurate in stressing this year points can come in a variety of manners. Last night a lot came off of good defensive play, including one sparkling sequence when Williams blocked a shot by the Mustangs’ Giacomo Brancato at one end of the court, retrieved it and scored on a left-handed drive while being fouled.
The game was a welcome reprieve from what has been an unspectacular first half of the regular season, with too many teams lacking offensive weapons and getting caught up in grinding play. It was fun watching Wilton and Warde rush up the court like racehorses released from the stable.
It was also nice to see a big game back at the Zeoli Fieldhouse, which used to house the conference championship game. It was noted on social media that it might be time to bring the final back. There will be no argument here; it is the only court that would provide true atmosphere to the showcase event.
While Warde coach Ryan Swaller will have a lot for his team to work on the next few days, mostly playing a complete game on defense, there is no reason for panic. The Mustangs did nothing to diminish their reputation and showed they possess the attributes to bring home their first title in the sport.
“We’re basically the same exact team,” Kronenberg said. “Run-and-gun teams, small and it showed tonight, but with our depth, trust in each other and chemistry it sets us apart.”
The temptation is to say Warde and Wilton are not that far apart from the rest of the league, but who else has demonstrated the ability to go all the way? Perhaps Danbury, once Marcus Fox returns, which would give the Hatters an inside presence they could exploit. It is hard to see anyone else at this point; the other schools currently at the top of the standings right now don’t appear to have the numbers to match up. Maybe that will change.
Last night wasn’t the classic the two teams produced in the league quarterfinals a year ago, but it was a good game, one that begs a postseason rematch.
Kronenberg spoke as if that was almost a certainty.
“This was certainly a huge stepping stone,” he said. “It was a good predecessor to possibly a postseason matchup. We know they will come out with everything they have just like we did in last year’s quarterfinals. We’re a lot deeper and we showed that tonight.”
Wilton has proved this season it can win by hitting from outside and slashing to the basket. This is Geriak’s fifth year, and this team rebounds and probably defends better than its predecessors.
“Tonight we came back, battled through everything and they know they can play with anybody as long as they play the right way,” Geriak said.
Yes, our little baby’s all grows up.