NEW CANAAN — Seven games’ worth of frustration — the amount of time he has missed this season — was unleashed the first time Alex Gibbens touched the ball tonight. New Canaan’s outstanding scoring leader was having a Player-of-the-Year-worthy season before being sidelined with a pair of injuries.
Gibbens returned tonight for a critical matchup against Staples. The Rams needed a win to keep their league playoff hopes alive; the Wreckers came in one win shy of qualifying.
Gibbens spun and hit a fadeaway jumper on that first possession. Next time down, Gibbens sank an open 3-pointer.
By the end of the quarter Gibbens had 10 points and an assist, on his way to a 22-point effort that carried the Rams to a 64-61 victory.
“I just thought I’d take it in my own hands, shoot the ball and hopefully the team rallied behind me and we shot well,” Gibbens said. “I was just feeling it, I don’t know how to explain it. I just shot it once and they just kept going in.”
New Canaan (11-8, 8-7 FCIAC) led by 11 points just four minutes in and by as many as 17 early in the third quarter. Still, victory was not assured until the Wreckers’ Jake Thaw, off a set play on an inbounds pass with 10 seconds left, had a game-tying shot rim out.
“We talked a lot about being ready to play right from the start,” New Canaan coach Danny Melzer said. “Having a lot of energy and passion. I thought tonight, the way we started, is the way we need to start every game. We were focused, we had our mind simply on winning and nothing else and a really good effort from the entire team. This was an FCIAC playoff game for us and we responded and I’m proud of that.”
The Rams, who would only be worried now about seeding with a healthy Gibbens, won for the third time in four games after a four-game losing streak. They will finish as the seventh or eighth seed if they defeat Bridgeport Central on Wednesday night and Brien McMahon loses to Trumbull. The teams are in a three-way tie and the Eagles still have a chance to qualify.
The Wreckers (13-6, 9-6) still control their own destiny. With a loss against Wilton they could make the playoffs on a tiebreaker and have a potential trump card with a win over Trinity Catholic, which will be the first or second seed, if more than two teams finish tied.
Staples coach Colin Devine was understandably unhappy with the slow start and buoyed by the finish, though at this point in the season he only cares about the outcome.
“We have to get off to a better start,” Devine said. “In those losses we got off to a bad start, fought back and ran out of gas. I think it’s a consistent effort for 32 minutes on both sides of the ball. I really thought tonight it was on the defensive side of the ball. We lost Gibbens. They’d give a backscreen or a slip for a layup. That got them on their run, got them going.”
Leo Mangus finished with 15 points and Christian Sweeney added 10 for the Rams, who for much of the night looked like the team they envisioned at the start of the season.
Gibbens missed five games with a hip injury and two more when he returned and suffered a broken pinkie that still may require surgery.
“It’s been really tough,” Gibbens said. “It’s just good to get back on the court. It’s hard being on the sideline losing and coming back in and getting the win is really good.”
Thaw, who has played most of the season on an injured ankle, scored 12 of his 20 points in the final quarter. Benny Feuer added 14 — 12 in the first half — and Derek Sale finished with 13, with all but two coming in the second half.
The Rams never trailed but had anxious moments as the Wreckers put on a furious rally. Thaw’s basket with 18 seconds left made the score 62-61. Sweeney answered with two free throws, setting up the final sequence.
“We knew we couldn’t shut him down, we just knew we had to contain him and (Lucas) Basich,” Melzer said of Thaw. “I thought we did a really good job on Basich. Thaw hurt us late. Thaw is arguably a top two or three player in the league. We weren’t going to shut him down but we wanted to limit him and I thought we did a really good job of that tonight.”
Motivational words for his players should be unnecessary for Devine.
“The kids know the job at hand on Wednesday so we will practice tomorrow and prepare to beat Wilton,” Devine said.