FAIRFIELD — Chris Longo is the most seasoned member of the Ridgefield High School boys basketball team, a two-sport star oblivious to the strains when a close game is on the line.
Longo has been the Tigers’ chameleon, content to stay in the background and mix in but ready to step up when needed.
An example of needed came in the second overtime of tonight’s FCIAC title game against Wilton, border rivals making their first final appearances before a sellout crowd at Fairfield University.
With the Tigers’ top scorer and leading rebounder both on the bench after fouling out, Longo stepped up and summoned a champion’s heart. Longo scored 9 of his 17 points in the second overtime, including four straight free throws that carried Ridgefield to a memorable 68-64 win.
“There is a time and a place, I just showed up at the end and here it is,” Longo said. “Killer mentality, I had to be the big guy, I had to be strong. I had to get the ball.”
The third-seeded Tigers had to overcome three deficits in the final period. The only points Longo didn’t account for came on a 3-point play by Zach Esemplare with 20.8 seconds left that gave the Tigers a 64-62 lead they would not relinquish.
Then Longo went 4 for 4 from the line down the stretch.
“It was do or die time for him and he stepped up and made some big plays and big free throws, and I’m really proud of him,” Ridgefield coach Andrew McClellan said of Longo.
Large groups of students from both schools started to pack the gymnasium 90 minutes before the opening tip, taunting one another from opposite ends. They were treated to a game that was occasionally sloppy but never short on energy and theatrics.Commentary: Ridgefield The Perfect Champion For An Imperfect Season
Wilton (17-6), the No. 5 seed, took a 40-33 lead at the start of the fourth quarter on a 3-point shot by Matt Kronenberg, then went scoreless for a stretch of five minutes and 20 seconds as the third-seeded Tigers (17-6) ran off 14 straight points for a 47-40 lead.
But with Jack Williams lost in the third quarter to another knee injury, Jack Wood unable to play with a knee injury that ended his season and several starters on the bench after fouling out, Kronenberg took over to rally his team in a masterful performance.
He scored the Warriors’ final six points in regulation, including a layup with 31 seconds left that tied the score at 49-49 and sent the game into the first overtime.
Kronenberg, who went down once with cramps and a second time after getting tangled with a Ridgefield player that caused him to hit his head on the floor, tried to carry Wilton to the finish line. He finished with 31 points, 20 coming in the fourth quarter and two overtimes.
“He was fantastic,” Wilton coach Joel Geriak said. “The only thing I’m mad about is we made some dumb turnovers with a one-point lead at the end, but other than that the kids played their hearts out for me. I can’t ask for more.”
Brenden McNamara, the 6-5 swingman whose return from a knee injury at midseason coincided with the start of the team’s championship run, finished with 18 points before fouling out late in the first overtime. He was replaced by 6-7 center Nick Laudati (8 points), who left after cramping up and soon joined McNamara on the bench with five fouls.
“It was impossible,” McNamara said of watching the end of the game from the sideline. “I thought a couple of times we were going to lose and I teared up a little, but I’m so proud of my team doing what it had to, to win.”
McNamara jumped over the press table and into the stands after the final buzzer to celebrate with a fan section that was a sea of black and orange.
“This was the biggest game of our lives and we just had to keep grinding,” McNamara said. “I don’t have words, I’m sorry.”
Esemplare, the hero of the semifinal win over Danbury, scored 10 of his 12 points after the third quarter for the Tigers, who won a quarterfinal game against Warde on a Laudati shot at the buzzer and then needed two overtimes to win their final two games.
“It feels unbelievable,” McClellan said. “It is hard to put it into words. The attention to detail down the stretch.”
Drew Connolly finished with 12 points for Wilton.
In a battle of attrition, the 10 players on the court at the end of the game included many not accustomed to being there with the outcome on the line.
The one with the most experience in the situation made the difference.
“I told him we’re going to need him,” McNamara said, referring to Longo. “He wasn’t playing in the third quarter and I knew he would make a play for us. I fouled out, Nicky fouled out and no one quit. It was amazing.”
Longo was much more succinct.
“It’s unbelievable,” he said. “It’s history.”