RIDGEFIELD — Like a virtuoso performer, Sean Conway saved his greatest moment for the final play of the regular season, in a sense his own personal encore before the playoffs.
Conway, who came in averaging over 32 points a game, hit a jump shot over three Ridgefield defenders with 1.2 seconds remaining to lead Fairfield Warde to a 67-65 victory tonight in a taut affair that would have gone down in FCIAC lore had it been played eight days later in the tournament championship.
After the Tigers’ James St. Pierre hit a game-tying 3-point shot with 27 seconds left, the Mustangs set up a final play. The ball found its way to Conway, who took the ball up top, dribbled right and managed to take a jumper over a maze of arms, giving him 40 points for the night and his team a confidence-building win.
“We wanted to get one shot so Ridgefield wouldn’t have chance to win,” Conway said. “I just wanted to get to my sweet spot on the right baseline. I was lucky enough to hit it.”
With much of the attention outside of Ridgefield and the scramble for playoff spots and positioning, the best team and the best player during the regular season put on a showcase event.
“It was a great game and a great high school player made one more play than our team made,” Tigers coach Andrew McClellan said. “He made a ton of those tonight.”
The Tigers (17-3, 14-2 FCIAC), who had already clinched the top seed in the FCIAC Tournament, which begins Saturday, suffered just their second league loss. They will begin defense of their title against Norwalk in the last of the quarterfinal games.
The Mustangs (13-7, 12-4), who will be hosting the opening round, jumped up to the fourth seed and will face Trumbull, which defeated Danbury to qualify.
Tonight’s game was a perfect tuneup for both teams, played with great intensity and high execution. Fittingly, it came down to an extraordinary play.
“He’s done well this year,” Warde coach Ryan Swaller said with a smile. “I realize now 20 games in how fortunate we are as a team and lucky to have Sean on the team because he helps us in so many ways. He was feeling it. I actually tried to get the ball out of his hands a little bit to get a flow going and it just found its way back to him and he found a way to score. He made a great shot, a tough shot. Give credit to Ridgefield. They battled all game and McNamara played a great game.”
Brenden McNamara, the Tigers’ dazzling scorer, normally would have had the spotlight to himself on the team’s senior night. He finished with 31 points and did everything to help his team win except for one thing beyond his control — get the chance to take the last shot.
“A playoff atmosphere against a good team,” McClellan said. “We accomplished the biggest goal that we had, which is a regular season championship. I think that is bigger than winning a tournament over three days, and I say that because we did it last year.”
The teams could meet in a semifinal rematch in six nights, and recreating the drama would be a tall task. There were 10 lead changes in the fourth quarter alone as the schools waged their own version of ‘Can You Top This?’
Ridgefield took its final lead with 1:27 left when McNamara made two free throws for a 62-61 advantage.
Conway answered with a driving basket and two free throws before St. Pierre quickly seized the momentum back to even the score.
“It was a great win tonight, a great environment,” Conway said. “Ridgefield is a great team. To come out here and get a win is great because it is so tough to win in Ridgefield. It was a great team effort and I’m happy we came out with the win.”
Matt Becker added 19 points for Warde, which made 11 3-point shots.
“We battled,” Swaller said. “We came out pretty hot and they went on a run, and then the second half we really focused.”
St. Pierre scored 10 points for Ridgefield.
It was one of the Tigers’ rare losses in a close game all year. None of those other opponents had a player as gifted as Conway, and Ridgefield cannot be faulted for the way they defended him.
“We switched a lot, we were prepared for him but at the end of the day kids aren’t used to that kind of shot-making,” McClellan said. “What you want other teams to do is take contested jump shots and he took a lot of contested jump shots. I think we could have won the game if we made just one more play.”