RIDGEFIELD — There was little tonight separating the teams that currently make up the best boys basketball rivalry in the FCIAC.
For 30 minutes, Ridgefield and Wilton were mostly carbon copies, playing hard defense, contesting shots and struggling offensively while trying to limit turnovers.
In the end, the outcome hinged on a stretch just before halftime and the contributions of the player who was often the smallest on the court.
The Tigers scored eight unanswered points to turn a 20-19 deficit into a seven-point lead at the break. They played with that margin pretty much the remainder of the way, largely because Matthew Knachel scored 17 of his 19 points after the break to lead Ridgefield to a 54-46 home win.
“I thought Wilton came out on fire in the first quarter,” Ridgefield coach Andrew McClellan said. “They controlled the pace of the game. They were fast and physical and I didn’t think my guys were ready for that. Midway through the second quarter we got our sea legs and our feet and started to have some good possessions. We went on a run that gave us a little cushion and then a pretty even game. I thought we were pretty mentally tough in the fourth quarter. Good decisions down the stretch.”
Emmett O’Malley added 12 points for the Tigers, who improved to 5-0 and remained one of the three remaining unbeaten teams in the league, along with Staples and St. Joseph.
Ridgefield’s closest game coming into tonight had been a 17-point win over Westhill, and it coasted pretty much in the second half.
The Tigers were in need of a challenge, and they got it at the outset from Wilton (1-2), which forced eight turnovers in the opening quarter to take a 13-10 lead.
“Wilton came out and set a tone and we haven’t played a team that approached it that way,” McClellan said. “They hit us right in the face. You could tell in warmups they were ready to play.”
The Warriors, still playing catchup after being forced to quarantine for two weeks after the second day of practice, was led by Josh White, who scored 13 points before fouling out. Trevor Martines added 9.
“I’m very pleased with the way we came back from how we played last game,” said Wilton coach Joel Geriak, referring to Tuesday night’s loss to Fairfield Warde on a layup at the buzzer. “We had a good practice yesterday. We’re still a long way off. We’re not close to where we want to be. The way they have been beating teams, to give them a scare was good to see.”
Wilton had a 20-19 lead on a Martines putback with 2:36 left in the half. After an exchange of misses, the Tigers’ Alister Walsh made two free throws to set off the pre-halftime run.
The Warriors temporarily lost their poise, missing shots on each possession, and Ridgefield capitalized.
Knachel hit a runner for his first points of the night, Walsh scored on the break and Amos Grey scored right before the buzzer.
Wilton got no closer than four points the rest of the way and Ridgefield led by as many as 10 points with 1:12 left.
In a game in need of a difference maker, Knachel stepped up and assumed that role.
“He is one of those kids who is super chill and calm,” McClellan said. “We need him to be a little bit more ferocious right from the start. I think his demeanor is to see what we need from him. And we need 32 minutes from him.”
That time frame resonated with Geriak as well.
“We showed what our mettle is and how good we can be in spurts,” Geriak said. “We just have to pay 32 minutes and we’re not there yet. We all want to be peaking for the playoffs.