FAIRFIELD — For five years the Fairfield Warde boys basketball team had been unable to make it past the first round of the FCIAC Tournament, the losses coming in a variety of heartbreaking ways, like a year ago to Wilton, after losing a seven-point lead in the final minute.
“That was our goal coming into the season, to break that curse,” Warde guard Brendan McMahon said.
The Mustangs were in need of a different path after falling behind Staples at halftime this afternoon, 32-23. A stifling defense paved a comeback and 51-44 quarterfinal win on their home court.
“It was just terrific defense in the second half; we showed on defense how good we can be,” Warde coach Ryan Swaller said. “Defense wins championships. We were able to overcome that first half with our second-half defense.”
Warde will face No. 2 Trinity Catholic in Tuesday’s semifinals. The Crusaders got a 3-point shot from Abdoul Rassoul on the wing with 5.2 seconds left to hold off an upset bid by Wilton, 53-50.
The sixth-seeded Wreckers (14-7), after a deft first-half, were held scoreless for the first 5:30 of the third quarter and to one field goal for 13 minutes and 40 seconds.
Third-seeded Warde (17-4) made adjustments at halftime, the biggest being coming out in an effective zone defense.
“When we weren’t scoring we had to find some way to get us back in the game,” McMahon said. “We’ve seen teams come back on us in the second half. Before Coach came in we said we have to lock down our defense, that’s what comes first, and our offense will come. There were droughts in the second half but our defense is what held us together.”
McMahon, who scored 30 points in back to back games this week to close the regular season, finished today with 23. He was 13 of 14 from the foul line.
Swaller attributed McMahon’s development to being taken under the wing of several of the Mustangs’ recent leaders, like Sean Conway and Dan Fitzpatrick.
“He’s just confident. He’s a senior and he’s worked his butt off all year long,” Swaller said. “In the offseason you found him in any gym possible and Brendan now is reaping the benefits.”
Jordyn Davis added 9 points and Justyn Davis finished with 7 for Warde.
The Wreckers finished with just 12 points in the second half. When they did get open looks, they went cold. They tried to rally late, with AJ Konstanty scoring off a feed from Jake Thaw and Benny Feuer making a steal and getting a goaltend call off a drive. That got them within 45-44.
McMahon made two free throws, but the Wreckers missed two game-tying attempts and Warde finished on a 6-0 run.
Thaw ended up with 13 points but was held to just a pair of foul shots in the second half. Feuer added 9 and Lucas Basich had 7 — all in the first half.
“I felt that Thaw and their other guards were getting into the paint too easy so we talked about changing it up,” Swaller said. “We adjusted some things at halftime and we were able to get some stops. They missed some open shots that I wouldn’t want Basich to have again but defense was out mindset and we were able to overcome the nine-point difference.”
And now the Mustangs finally get to make the trip to Wilton, the site of the Final Four.
I think doing that is such a big thing but it’s not over yet,” McMahon said. “We still have two more games that we’re looking to and the championships is what’s really on our mind.”
The second-seeded Crusaders (16-5) came in as the playoff favorite and many wondered how they would fare in a close game. They passed the test, answering baskets by Wilton down the stretch.
Andrew Smith (23 points) made seven 3-pointers, including four in the fourth quarter, for Wilton.
Ras Fisher (20 points, 10 in fourth quarter) scored on a putback, was fouled and completed a three-point play to give Trinity a 50-47 lead with 1:08 left.
The seventh-seeded Warriors (11-10) missed three straight 3-pointers, but after Trinity missed the front end of a one-and-one, Smith made a 3 to tie the game at 50-50 with 18 seconds left.
Abdoul Rassoul then calmly hit the game-winner. Wilton was unable to get a shot off at the end.
Kyle Hyzy, who injured his knee on Monday night and whose status was uncertain until tipoff, finished with 13 points for Wilton. John Walsh added 11.
“The kids played their butts off for me,” Wilton coach Joel Geriak said. “They did everything I asked them. We did everything we wanted to, to try and win the game. Their big man hit a 3. That’s the way things happen. Playing shorthanded like we did, obviously I want to win the game but I’m very happy with the way we played.”
Malcolm Newman finished with 13 points for the Crusaders.
Trinity coach Brian Kriftcher and his players declined to talk to The Ruden Report.