WILTON — The New Canaan boys basketball team was without its best player for the past four games, and though it went 3-1, there was a palpable difference not just in performance but emotion.
Both of those areas received a boost prior to today’s FCIAC Tournament quarterfinal at Wilton, when Leo Magnus was cleared to play after going though concussion protocols.
Magnus made his impact felt from the outset, scoring 14 of his game-high 20 points in the first quarter as the Rams led for the final 25 minutes, withstood a fourth-quarter comeback and advanced with a 57-48 win over the Warriors.
“It has been really tough to be on the sidelines,” Magnus said. “Now that we’re back to full strength we’re really just keying in on a deep playoff push.”
The Rams, whose only appearances in the title game ended in losses in 1983-84, will travel to top-seeded Ridgefield for a semifinal Tuesday night. It will be a rematch of the league’s game of the year to date, a double overtime win by New Canaan that ended the defending league champion’s 21-game winning streak.
New Canaan coach Danny Melzer said he noticed a change in his team after word spread about Magnus’ return and a bigger one once the game began.
“When you miss someone of that caliber you definitely feel a difference,” Melzer said. “Leo is an All-FCIAC player and he played like one tonight. He stepped up big-time for us. I’m proud of the way he came back, I’m proud of the way he competed. He fought through adversity. We’re one of four teams left.”
Christian Sweeney added 13 points — including the biggest basket of the game — for the fifth-seeded Rams (10-4). Blake Wilson scored 11 points.
“I’m proud of us,” Melzer said. “We took their best punch. They got it down to three and we didn’t blink. I told these guys it’s the playoffs, nothing is going to come easy. We’re not going to go up by 10 and they’re just going to lay down and die. They threw their best punch at us and we responded. That’s what good teams do. Hopefully that’s the sign of a championship team.”
The Rams used a 7-0 run to take a 15-9 lead at the start of the second quarter and continued to build on it. They were up by 10 at halftime and by as many as 13 points in the third quarter.
Wilton (11-3), which had won nine straight games, battled back early in the fourth quarter. The Warriors’ best quality all season was their tenacity — coach Joel Geriak never got cheated out of a minute by any of his players — and they scored nine unanswered points in under two minutes to get within 45-42 with 5:22 remaining.
Coming out of a timeout, Sweeney, a member of the Rams’ football team, caught a bullet pass on the left side and made a 3-point shot and then Magnus hit Steven Panzano, who also returned today from an injury, for a layup that made then score 52-44.
Wilton got no closer than six the rest of the way.
“You talk about Leo being All-FCIAC and if you watch tonight there’s no doubt,” Melzer said. “We got big performances out of other guys too. Christian’s shot was a big shot. A big shot.”
This was the third meeting between the teams. Wilton won at New Canaan 37-35 on March 5 — Magnus sustained his concussion in the fourth quarter of the game — and again by 25 eight days later.
This was a game that team talent-wise was probably played a round too soon and thus was a tough draw for both teams.
“It’s hard to beat someone three times,” Geriak said. “I honestly believe we are deeper in talent but tonight they played better than us, it’s that simple. We just didn’t play the game we wanted to defensively. We wanted it to be in the 60s and 70s and they slowed us down. I’m proud of every one of them. I wish it didn’t have to end this way.”
Josh White scored 15 points and Parker Woodring added 11 for Wilton.
The Tigers have won three of the last four FCIAC titles. To extend the streak they will now have to get by the only team to beat them in the last 26 games.
“This was a great team victory,” Melzer said. “It feels good to advance to the semifinals. But our work is not done. Our goal is to win a championship.”