FAIRFIELD — On a night the starting point guard from the only girls basketball team in Wilton history to win the FCIAC championship returned to lend support, it was a current backcourt star that carried the Warriors to the brink of a second title.
Claire Gilbin’s steal and subsequent basket, following a timeout, with 20 seconds left lifted the Warriors to a 43-42 win over Fairfield Warde in tonight’s first semifinal game.
“It was really back and forth,” Gulbin said. “Our motto for the season has been refuse to lose and in the final seconds that was the mindset and we pulled it out.”
Second-seeded Wilton (18-4) will face the defending champion, Trumbull, in Thursday night’s final. The Eagles held off a furious late comeback attempt to defeat Stamford, 51-44, in tonight’s nightcap.
In a grinding back and forth game in which neither team led by more than four points over the final 11 minutes, No. 3 Fairfield Warde (17-5) took a 42-41 lead with 1:40 remaining on Cat Allison’s basket off an inbounds play.
After an exchange of possessions, Gulbin made a steal and the Warriors called a timeout to set up a play.
“She wants the ball to go to the rim,” Coloney said. “What can you say? Big time players want the ball in their hands.”
With Kristine Lilly, who started on the Warriors’ 1989 title team but gained a little more renown for her work on the soccer field, in attendance, Gulbin headed to the basket and used some finesse.
“I knew my team needed a bucket and if I got a step on my man I had to go in and I had to make a shot,” said Gulbin, who finished with 20 points. “I knew the clock was going down but that shot is a shot I work on all the time. Usually I overshoot it so I was really focusing on laying it in soft and I was able to get it to fall.”
Gulbin set the tone early, scoring the Warriors’ first 10 points for a quick seven-point advantage.
“I love this stage,” Gulbin said. “Usually the past couple of years I’ve been sitting in the bleachers watching, so I wanted to come out as hard as I could and help the team.”
The Mustangs chipped away and tied the game at 22-22 on Caroline Aufiero’s 3-point shot at the halftime buzzer.
From there came an exchange of brief momentum changes, setting the stage for the finish.
Lauren Robertson finished with 9 points and was a factor on the boards for Wilton. Emily Tuin added 7 points.
“I thought the complementary players did a great job with Bres sitting out,” said Coloney, referring to Liz Breslin, who was saddled with foul trouble. “We started to attack the rim, four huge free throws. What a game.”
Wilton was able to hold Warde’s Olivia Parisi, the only consensus pick to the All-FCIAC team, to 14 points.
“She’s an unbelievable player,” Gulbin said. “She’s what makes them go. She is really tough and our whole gameplan was to stop her, and we still really struggled with her. She makes a nice move, makes a shot or gets fouled or kicks it out to an open shooter. Thankfully we contained her enough to get the win.”
Aufiero added 11 points for the Mustangs.
Wilton was knocked out in the semifinals in 2015 before rebounding to win the state title. It did not even qualify for the tournament last season.
Now the Warriors are stocked with seniors.
“The amazing thing about this team is they get it,” Coloney said. “Not even that (2015) team could handle the adversity of the FCIAC Tournament. We didn’t play in it last year. To play two huge nailbiting games and to come away with wins. That’s all you can ask for.”
The Warriors will face the top-seeded Eagles, who seemed headed for an easy night after jumping out to a 19-3 lead after Stamford’s leading scorer, Brooke Kelly, picked up her second foul just 67 seconds into the game.
Trumbull (21-1) still held a 36-19 lead late in the third quarter before the Black Knights went on a 17-3 run. Kelly had two 3-point shots and in between both she and Jessica Nelson turned steals into layups to bring Stamford within 39-36.
The Black Knights had the ball and the chance to tie the score, but Kelly had a shot blocked and Trumbull freshman Cassi Barbato answered with a 3-pointer. The Eagles then scored their final nine points from the foul line.
“I told the girls Stamford has a lot of pride,” Trumbull coach Steve Tobitsch said. “We knew they weren’t going to go away. We got off to a hot start and I think this is the best thing that could have happened to us. To be tested in the semifinal round shows how quickly things can be taken away from you. We have to take care of the ball and be smarter and make good decisions, like we did in the first quarter.”
Brady Lynch, who did most of her scoring at key moments, led Trumbull with 12 points, while Julie Keckler and Barabato added 11 apiece.
“They were on us the whole game and I felt we kept our composure and held on,” Keckler said. “I believed in our team so I knew we would come back.”
Kelly finished with 18 points for the fifth-seeded Black Knights (15-7) while Andrea O’Connor added 13 points.
“I’m happy we came out on top,” Tobitsch said. “I’m not happy with the way we finished the game necessarily but we competed and I think we learned a lot from tonight.”