UNCASVILLE — Ultimately, the last 11 seconds of Saturday night’s Class LL boys basketball final defined how Westhill just missed out on its first state championship, but not its season.
In a defensive struggle that caused usually sure shooters to become errant with their shots, Fairfield Prep’s Tommy Nolan, who earlier made the play that changed the game around, missed the front end of a 1 and 1 with his team leading, 51-50.
The Vikings hurried downcourt, trying to get the ball to their closer, Jeremiah Livingston, but in the mad-dash scramble he remained, for the first time this year, a step behind the play. The ball was first in CJ Donaldson’s hands, then Juan De La Cruz’s, before finding its way into the right corner, where Vashon Natteal was alone unguarded.
Natteal’s shot and the Vikings’ dreams seemed to hang in the air interminably, until the ball hit off the front of the rim, caromed away and the Jesuits had held on for a 51-50 victory, their first in the final after losses in three of the previous four years.
The Westhill players only came away with tears.
“This group of kids, when you see the heart and determination they brought to this point and to see it go down like it went down, as much as I give Prep the credit for winning that game, to my kids, the season they had, you can’t take it away,” Westhill coach Howard White said. “We had a good look, a good shot. It just didn’t fall.”
For three quarters the teams played a chess match, only with the pieces constantly moving as each tried to master the other’s offensive strengths with a confusing and constantly changing defense.
Each succeeded. Prep (23-1) made just 38 percent of its shots; Westhill was good on 45 percent of its chances.
For the first time all year, Livingston, whose individual performance this year, when you weigh everything, ranks with the best in FCIAC history, struggled to get going. He finished with 12 points, made just one field goal and had six turnovers to balance his five assists.
CJ Donaldson and Tyrell Alexander, with 14 points and 5 rebounds apiece, carried the Vikings, and Natteal made a pair of 3-point shots.
And still, the Vikings (25-2) seemed headed into the fourth quarter with a five-point lead when Nolan, from just above halfcourt, banked in a running shot that made the score 44-42.
There would be just 15 points combined scored in the final period. Defense and exhaustion turned what were made baskets and free throws the previous three months into misses.
Prep took a 49-46 lead on a 3-point shot by Richard Kelly with 3:54 remaining. It maintained it, though Westhill twice got within a point and ultimately had a chance to win.
“The idea was to get the ball in his hand, but you can’t just rely on the one player,” White said of Livingston, talking about the final play. Everybody else stepped up.”
The Vikings had a magical season, with 14 of their 27 games decided by six or fewer points. The fact that one was the final game of the year will not ruin what was accomplished before it.
But it will not provide that ultimate memory that they worked so hard to put within their grasp.
White tried to remain upbeat. As he spoke, his team’s locker room door occasionally opened and you could see his players using their uniforms to conceal their tears.
White shaked his head a last time.
“It was unfortunate the way it came down,” he said.