FAIRFIELD — The scouting report on Ridgefield point guard Zach Esemplare from opposing FCIAC coaches goes something like this: good ballhandler, rarely makes mistakes, doesn’t like to shoot.
When relayed to Esemplare tonight, he smiled and said, “That’s true.”
Esemplare was more forthcoming but at a greater loss to explain his heroics that carried the Tigers to their first league championship following a 67-63 double-overtime win over Danbury. With the third-seeded Tigers trailing, 48-45, with 3.6 seconds left in regulation, Esemplare took two dribbles over halfcourt and sank a shot to tie the game.
Esemplare extended the game again at the end of the first overtime with a layup off a drive that made the score 57-57.
Esemplare finished with 16 points. He scored the Tigers’ last five of the night, from the foul line.
Ridgefield (16-6) needed all of them with two starters, Chris Longo and Nick Laudati, on the bench after fouling out in the fourth quarter.
“We had a couple of guys foul out, our offense wasn’t really working and I was just able to make that lucky play at the end,” Esemplare said. “Honestly I can’t believe it went in. I thought I missed it. That moment right after it was like, it’s a whole new game.”
The final will have a great storyline as the Tigers will meet border rival Wilton in Thursday’s final. The Warriors will also be making their first appearance following a 72-66 win over top-seeded Trumbull in last night’s second game.
After a grinding first half in which both teams were plagued by poor shooting and turnovers, the seventh-seeded Hatters (14-8) led the entire fourth quarter and seemed to be in control with a 45-40 lead with 54 seconds left after two free throws by Chris Torres, who scored a game-high 26 points.
Ridgefield managed to stay close but still trailed by three after a pair of free throws by the Hatters’ Marcus Fox (16 points).
“He doesn’t like to shoot but he can shoot,” said Ridgefield coach Andrew McClellan, who added that Esemplare has made about 46 percent of his 3-point shots this year. “That’s the whole thing. The problem is he takes one or two a game, if that. He’s an ultimate old-school point guard. He’s not fast. He does it with his moves and changing speed. Several games he’s had 10 rebounds. Several games he’s had 10 assists. Tonight he gets a little press because he made some shots and I’m happy for him.”
Brenden McNamara, trying to fill a number of roles because of the Tigers’ personnel losses, finished with 23 points. Laudati added 13.
Esemplare was pragmatic in assessing his performance.
“I also had some turnovers when I tried to do too much so I kind of just played my role, but with two starters on the bench someone had to step up there,” Esemplare said.
The Tigers have been the tournament’s drama kings: they reached the semifinals after Laudati’s shot from close range at the buzzer against Fairfield Warde in the first round. Laudati finished with 13 tonight.
Asked if he felt his team was on a special run, Esemplare said, “I think so. Maybe we can finally win an FCIAC championship.”
First the Tigers will have to get past Wilton, no easy task. With Jack Williams, even at less than 100 percent with a knee injury, performing well, the Warriors (17-5) are looking more like the team that was 10-0 at midseason and the league favorite.
The second game was played at a more fluid pace, much to Wilton’s liking. It led by as many as 10 points in the first half, but the Eagles (19-3) rallied and took a 38-36 lead on a 3-point shot by Timmond Williams midway through the third quarter.
The score stayed close until the Warriors went on an 11-0 run to go ahead, 59-46, with 3:40 left. Sean Breslin started it with a 3-point shot and then Drew Connolly followed with two more.
Trumbull got no closer than five points the rest of the way.
This was the first time the Warriors got past the semifinals after failing the past two years.
“We’re not the Gonzagas or Kansases of the world anymore,” Wilton coach Joel Geriak said. “We finally got past that hump. I just think with this team it was their time. Other teams were very good. We got much better at the end and I’m proud of the way they played.”
Williams led a balanced attack with 18 points. Drew Connolly finished with 14, Breslin added 12 and Matt Kronenberg had 10.
JJ Pfohl scored 20 to pace Trumbull. Johnny McElroy added 15 and Chris Brown 13.
Asked about playing Ridgefield, Geriak smiled.
“It’s going to be a fun game,” he said. “Get your popcorn ready.”