NEW CANAAN — The only way tonight’s easy frontrunner for FCIAC boys basketball game of the year could have been improved would have been with bunting, cheerleaders and about 1,500 screaming fans inside the New Canaan High School gymnasium.
In a game deserving of a traditional festive atmosphere, the Rams and Ridgefield, the defending FCIAC champion, played evenly through two overtimes. New Canaan made seven of eight free throws down the stretch, played tremendous defense to force a turnover on an inbounds play with the Tigers hoping for a game-tying shot in the final seconds and held on for a 64-59 win.
“I’d rather it be less fun and win by about 20,” New Canaan coach Danny Melzer said after arguably the team’s biggest regular season win in recent memory, more for significance than importance in the standings. “This was a fun game. I’m on the winning end so it’s easy for me to say this but I think I probably would say that even if we lost. Two teams that left everything out on the floor. Two teams that are going to go home, be exhausted and sleep very well tonight. I’m proud of the effort of these guys, the execution down the stretch and the defense on that last possession when they couldn’t get the ball in.”
New Canaan (7-1), which beat its second undefeated team in 48 hours, with four games left in the regular season has positioned itself to finish no worse than the No. 2 seed. St. Joseph is undefeated and the Rams now have tiebreakers over Ridgefield (7-1) and Staples, which they defeated yesterday.
New Canaan also ended the Tigers’ 21-game winning streak in the process of further validating itself as a legitimate title contender, now having passed more than just the eye test.
“We haven’t really played well all season, we didn’t start well, we had a quarantine,” said point guard Will Bozzella, who scored 7 points and was efficient running the New Canaan offense. “These past two games, I don’t want to say statement games but they showed the league what we have.”
New Canaan won despite having its leading scorer, Leo Magnus, foul out right at the start of the second overtime. Contributions came from everyone. Denis Mulcahy, the senior center who was one of the protagonists to the game within a game tonight, followed up an 18-point effort against Staples with 16 tonight.
Magnus and Blake Wilson, who hit several big shots, finished with 14 points apiece. Christian Sweeney added 12.
“Ridgefield is never going to beat themselves,” Melzer said. “I told these guys, if we’re going to beat Ridgefield we’re going to have to play our A game, and I thought we did that tonight. A couple of bad breaks at the end of the half but the way we responded, taking it possession by possession, that shows our mental toughness, that shows our perseverance.”
Ridgefield took its biggest lead by ending the first half on a 7-0 run, with Amos Grey’s long shot off a turnover at the buzzer making the score 29-20.
The Rams needed just over two minutes to shave all but two points off the deficit and took their first lead since midway through the opening quarter on a 3-pointer by Bozzella that made the score 36-35 with 1:51 left in the third.
Ridgefield took a five-point lead with 5:38 left in regulation. New Canaan quickly tied the score, and the teams stayed within two points of each other for nine minutes, until the Rams pulled away at the end.
“We made some mistakes at the end and they capitalized on them,” Ridgefield coach Andrew McClellan said. “That’s the bottom line. “When you play a game like this often I’ll say we made one or two more plays than the other team. I thought New Canaan played a really good game. They had a huge third quarter and then it was just a good high school battle back and forth. I think they made one more play than us tonight.”
The Tigers had chances at the end of both regulation and the first overtime to win the game but could not get shots to fall. If they had been able to run a final play with eight seconds left in the second overtime, the teams might still be playing. But Grey, looking to get the ball in from the far end of the sideline, had to contend with Mulcahy jumping in front of him. He tried to hit Justin DiFabio on his way to the basket but the pass was too far in front and Sweeney grabbed it, was fouled and made both free throws.
Dylan Viellette, a freshman center who is making as much of an impact as any 9th-grader in some time, led Ridgefield with 18 points. Matt Knachel scored 14 and Grey added 9.
The game was something of a throwback to the time when players in the paint dominated, as Mulcahy and Viellette took turns making big plays.
“Thirty-three is a stud,” said Melzer, referring to Viellette by his jersey number. “That kid is the real deal. I don’t remember seeing a kid that good, at that age since….I don’t know. And Denis was great. He made some huge plays for us, played a ton of minutes.”