NEW CANAAN — So much for the idea of celebrity clouding the members of the New Canaan boys basketball team.
Four days after an improbable ending that resulted in a win over Stamford brought them national attention, the Rams followed up tonight with another strong performance. Playing stifling defense and creating uncontested looks, they opened the second quarter with an 11-0 run and rolled to a 52-32 win over Trinity Catholic.
It was the third straight win and fifth in the last six games for New Canaan (7-2, 4-2 FCIAC), which is one victory away from clinching a state tournament berth for the first time in 10 years.
“If we play defense like that and we box out the way we boxed out we’re going to be in really good shape,” New Canaan coach Danny Melzer said. “We get contributions from all over the place. Offense, defense, it was a complete team effort. That’s how we’re going to be all season. It’s fun to coach.”
Matt Brand scored 16 points to lead the Rams’ balanced attack. Ben Sarda added nine points, while Alex Gibbens and Jack Richardson scored eight each.
“I think having a few wins strung together really helps a team’s chemistry and really helps the dynamic on the court,” Brand said.
In their previous outing, New Canaan defeated Stamford, 52-49, on Ryan McAleer’s halfcourt shot at the buzzer. There were six points scored in the final 0.9 seconds and McAleer’s play — he first intercepted a long inbounds pass — went viral on social media.
It was an unaccustomed position for a team that has struggled for years and rarely gets any attention even in its hometown, where football and lacrosse dominate.
Melzer admitted to being uncertain how his players would perform tonight. Sarda opened the game hitting a 3-point shot. The Crusaders (5-4, 3-3) then went on a 7-0 run. As it turned out, they scored those points in two minutes and were held to 25 points over the other 30 minutes.
“I wasn’t sure how we would respond,” Melzer said. “I thought we came out a little too loose for my liking in warmups. Maybe that’s who we are. We’re confident, we have fun, we’re loose and what I really enjoy about this team is we’re not relying on one guy.”
The Crusaders came in on a four-game winning streak. They are very athletic but also very young, with four sophomores seeing considerable minutes. It showed often against the Rams, who feed off their experience.
“They executed what they wanted to do better than we executed what we want to do,” Trinity coach Brian Kriftcher said. “They kept us out of the paint, they contested shots and they knocked down open 3s. Teams are going to play us this way because that’s how they can neutralize whatever advantage they perceive we have. But if the ball doesn’t move we are playing into a set offense each time. We have to move the ball. We have to rise to the occasion.”
Akim Joseph led Trinity with 15 points.
The Crusaders were also unable to capitalize on their size advantage, especially on the boards.
“Our main focal point before the game was we had to be the more physical team tonight and we were,” Melzer said. “We really competed, boxed out tremendously. Offensively we were a little sloppy at times but when you hold a team to 32 points you’re going to be in good shape.”
The Rams are having success during their most difficult stretch of games. They will get perhaps their biggest test Thursday when they travel to Trumbull, the league favorite.
“We have a strong bond on and off the court and that helps just that much more with moving the ball around to get good looks,” Brand said. “That’s a tribute to the team chemistry, with a lot of guys returning this year. The hopes are high right now, but we are taking it one game at a time. Each next game is our biggest game of the year.”