Boys Basketball

New Canaan Overcomes Slow Start For 55-44 Win Over St. Joseph

New Canaan’s Matt Brand scores on a layup. (Gregory Vasil)

NEW CANAAN — New Canaan boys basketball coach Danny Melzer told a gathering of reporters following tonight’s 55-44 win over St. Joseph about using the final week of the regular season to get ready for the FCIAC Tournament in hopes of competing for the championship.

Nobody laughed.

While the first part of that statement was a realistic goal two months ago, the latter would have appeared comedic.

No longer. With their 10th win in the last 12 games and tied for the fourth-best record in league play, it is best not to put any ceiling on the Rams. Especially after a subpar performance against a team that will likely join them in the playoffs.

“The positive that I take away from tonight is we did not play well and we won,” Melzer said. “Offensively we didn’t play well. Defensively I thought we played well.”

The Rams’ Ben Sarda takes a 3-point shot from the corner. (Gregory Vasil)

New Canaan (14-4, 10-4) won despite making just one of 16 3-point attempts and almost squandering an 11-point fourth-quarter lead.

“I think in the first half we were shooting too many 3s and we weren’t shooting them well,” said Luke Rwambuya, who scored 10 of his 12 points before halftime. “In the second half we came out and attacked the rim a lot more and we were able to get a lot more layups that allowed us to go on a run at the end of the game.”

The Rams finished with a 9-0 run after the Cadets had used their own 9-0 spurt to draw within 46-44 with 3:34 left.

Jack Richardson led New Canaan with 13 points on its final home game of the regular season. Matt Brand scored six of his 10 points in succession during the closing rally. Alex Gibbens added eight points.

St. Joseph’s Jason James drives to the basket. (Gregory Vasil)

“I say the same quote every time but each night it is somebody different,” Melzer said. “Everybody’s contributing and we didn’t shoot the ball well. We needed contributions on defense, we needed contributions attacking the rim. I thought Luke and Jack really carried us in the first half and Brand and Gibbens made big plays for us in the second half.”

The FCIAC chooses eight players each on its postseason all-league first and second teams and it is plausible not one New Canaan player will be honored. Ask five opposing coaches which Ram they would choose first to start a team and you might get five different answers.

All of which has made the Rams, who will be playing in both postseason tournaments for the first time in 11 years, such a compelling story during what has been a mundane year.

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“Any kid can step up on the team really,” Rwambuya said. “We don’t have that one guy who is going to score for us. Tonight we had pretty even scoring and that’s how we got the win. It’s always big when you have depth because any given guy at any given time can make a big play for you.”

New Canaan’s Luke Rwambuya blocks a shot by St. Joseph’s Paul Fabbri. (Gregory Vasil)

Steve Paolini scored a game-high 16 points for St. Joseph (10-7, 8-6), which is tied with Stamford for the sixth-best league mark. Paul Fabbri added 11 points.

The teams combined to miss their first 12 shots during a sloppy start that saw the Rams take a 22-19 halftime lead.

New Canaan was coming off its biggest win of the season, at Ridgefield, which followed being upset by rival Darien.

New Canaan’s Matt Brand and St. Joseph’s Kyren Jones battle for position. (Gregory Vasil)

The Rams found their groove in the third quarter, with their superior court awareness leading to good passes for easy baskets. Eight straight points gave them a 42-31 lead early in the final period.

But Fabbri and Paolini rallied the Cadets, who trailed by just two before Brand scored three straight layups.

“We just keep playing hard, keep grinding, we’re never going to give up, whether we are up 20 or down 20,” said Kevin Wielk, the Cadets’ first-year coach. “There are no nights off in the FCIAC. We’re right there.”

St. Joseph’s Paul Fabbri tries to get past New Canaan’s Ryan McAleer. (Gregory Vasil)

While the Rams are brimming with optimism, they seem to be keenly aware that the difference between them and the rest of the playoff field is minor. There is not a large margin for error, and one off night in the postseason could change their fortunes.

Tonight’s 11-point win off a bad half is cause for optimism.

“We need to play our best basketball heading into the playoffs and against Ridgefield we played really well,” Melzer said. “Tonight we didn’t. Next week our emphasis, our focus is going to be playing our best basketball. Hopefully we can do that.”