GREENWICH — Jonathan Palmer laughed when asked about his Tom-and-Jerry relationship with Wilton’s Eric Houska.
It can be summed up thusly: Palmer, the renowned shut-down defender for Greenwich High School, is outstanding at stopping opposing players from scoring.
And the sharp-shooting Houska likes to score.
“At first me and Houska really didn’t like each other,” Palmer said with a smile Thursday night, not long after the Cardinals survived — emphasis on survive — with a 67-61 overtime win over the Warriors. “I’m kind of an in-your-face defender and he doesn’t like it. Actually we hugged it out in the end.”
Palmer first did more of a hug-down for 36 minutes as Houska was held without a field goal and to just 5 points.
“Jon is just a luxury to have,” Greenwich coach Bill Brehm said. “He just wants to shut down the other kid.”
The fourth-seeded Cardinals (23-3) completed a sweep of three games against Wilton — two in the postseason — which, if you watched the Warriors’ effort on Thursday, is not as easy as it may appear.
There were storylines aplenty, but the biggest one was this: Playing a box-and-1, the Warriors (13-10) held the Cardinals’ star, CJ Byrd, to just 3 points in the first half. Houska had just 1.
But Byrd got untracked the rest of the way, finishing with 21 points. Houska could never shake Palmer.
“For one, Palmer is a great defender, and CJ Byrd is the best player in the league,” Wilton coach Joel Geriak said. “He’s just a special player with his size. He’s hard to defend.”
The Warriors are a tremendously resilient team, which is why they were still playing in mid-March. Matt Shifrin stepped up and finished with 21 points. Richard Williams added 14.
And Scott “Buzzer-Beater” Shouvlin, whose 3-point shot at the end of double overtime Tuesday night at Hartford Public earned Wilton the trip to Greenwich, this time was only slightly less dramatic, converting from behind the arc with 11 seconds left in regulation to tie the game.
That ended a comeback from an 11-point deficit with 5:32 remaining.
“These kids gave me for two games in a row now everything they have,” Geriak said.
Added Brehm, “The fact Houska didn’t have a field goal and they still took us to overtime is a credit to Joel.”
Palmer dropped hints about what happens when you have to dance with Houska all night long. There was some talking, though Palmer said it was usually after the whistle. There were, he said, even a few punches.
But Palmer was respectful of his opponent, saying that Houska, who was voted to the second team, should have been selected All-FCIAC.
“He’s a good kid, a good player,” Palmer said.
Palmer even displayed a modest offensive game. After Byrd opened the fourth quarter with a putback, Palmer made two foul shots and then scored on a 3-point play, part of the 11-0 run that broke a 38-38 tie and seemingly put the Cardinals in control.
“It’s weird,” Palmer said. “I hit my free throws, which is a good thing.”
What Palmer was doing on the defensive end, Byrd equalled after halftime when the Cardinals had the ball.
“No one is as quick as CJ,” Palmer said. “No one is.”
After a season in which Houska did so much to carry the Warriors beyond expectations, his teammates did the heavy lifting to nearly extend the season for at least one more game.
Instead, the Cardinals advance to the quarterfinals Monday night at home against New Britain. They last reached the round in 2002. They have never been to the Final Four.
It is uncertain whether a New Britain player will be hugging it out with Palmer after the game.
What is certain is he will get hugged down.