FAIRFIELD — The Norwalk boys basketball team did not appear primed for one of the biggest upsets in recent FCIAC Tournament history.
The Bears were coming off a 34-point loss to Darien on Wednesday to end the regular season. Talk of turmoil spread throughout the league.
Norwalk took a bunker mentality.
“That was a tough loss,” Tyrique Langley, the team’s leading scorer, said. “I don’t know what we were doing but after we left that gym it was over. It was 0-0 and we came in here and played our ass off.”
While the execution wavered early, the effort never did, which is why the eighth-seeded Bears will be playing Tuesday night when the Final Four returns to Wilton following a 59-50 win over Ridgefield, the defending champion.
Langley scored 28 points, but most impressive was the way the Bears (13-8) finished the game. They used a 12-3 run to pull away in the final minutes. Izaiah Lopez twice hustled for steals in the backcourt on consecutive possessions in the final 40 seconds.
In the end, Norwalk seemed like the more determined team.
“Our whole team knew in order to beat Ridgefield you need to play a perfect game or near-perfect game,” Norwalk coach Tom Keyes said. “They’re a great team and I thought we played really well tonight. We have a gutsy group. Despite what some say there are no issues. The team was looking forward to this game all season long, and we’re happy that we got an opportunity to play in it and we’re happy we got an opportunity to play well in the game.”
After a lackluster early session, the biggest storylines on the opening day of the playoffs happened in the night games. Prior to Norwalk’s win, Trumbull finished on a 10-2 run in the final 95 seconds to defeat Fairfield Warde on its home court, 65-58.
Over the course of two hours, the best team in the regular season and the best player — the Mustangs’ Sean Conway — were sent home.
Either Norwalk or Trumbull will play in next Thursday’s final, which seemed improbable just two weeks ago and even before the start of today, and will be cast as an underdog against the winner of Tuesday’s other semifinal, between Trinity Catholic and Danbury.
Ridgefield (16-5) won the regular-season title but often lived on the edge, forced to scramble late against teams that were never playoff contenders. The Tigers still won those games, and pocketed victories over Trinity and Danbury.
The Tigers finally came out on the short side Wednesday night, but it took a shot by Conway over three defenders with 1.2 seconds left. Tonight they were never fluid, always grinding, often forced to play catch up rather than putting the pressure on Norwalk.
Brenden McNamara finished with 26 points and James St. Pierre added 10, but it was the rare ragged performance.
“Norwalk played better than Ridgefield tonight,” Tigers coach Andrew McClellan said. “We didn’t play with very much poise. I thought we tried to scramble to get back into the game. We just didn’t play the type of basketball that these guys have played all year long. It has happened a little bit recently but for the first time for the whole game we were trying to win instead of execute. We played hard but we didn’t play well.”
The Bears were particularly impressive on the defensive end of the court, jumping into passing lanes and contesting shots.
“Just play man to man and when you get back in the locker room you’re going to have to look your teammates in the eye so you better make sure you play hard on defense, and I think we did that well tonight,” Keyes said. “I thought we brought a different level of hustle that had been inconsistent at times during the regular season but now it’s the playoffs.”
Zyaire Sellers added 17 points for Norwalk, which has now alternated wins with losses over the prior 10 games.
“When we played (Ridgefield) at our house they outhustled us at the end,” Langley said. “We kept being aggressive, switching, talking. Playing defense.”
Trumbull’s Chris Brown had no practical training, but in tonight’s first game he spent most of the time attempting to chase an eel. That is the best way to describe trying to defend Conway, who is enjoying one of the best seasons ever by an FCIAC player. He is averaging over 32 points a game; the last time anyone can recall a player over the 30-point mark was Stamford Catholic’s John Smyth in 1982 (before the 3-point shot).
When Eagles coach Buddy Bray saw that Conway finished with 26 points tonight, he smiled.
“He’s the league MVP but I thought Chris Brown did a hell of a job on him,” Bray said. “He had 13 at the half. He had to work hard for them. Tip your hat, he’s a great basketball player and he’s a hell of a player.”
Trumbull (16-5), which does not have a senior and needed wins the final week over Bridgeport Central and Danbury to secure a playoff spot, trailed 56-55 after a basket by Conway with 2:15 left.
The Eagles allowed just one basket the rest of the way and shut down Conway, while making six free throws before a final basket by freshman Mileeq Green, who hit a 3-point shot moments earlier and is providing quality minutes off the bench.
Conway scored 44 points in the teams’ previous meeting.
“He’s a great player. Last time he really hurt us,” Brown said. “I was trying to keep him under his average. Play a little bit more up on him because obviously he can hit the 3 from anywhere.”
Matt Becker added 18 points for the fourth-seeded Mustangs (13-8).
Timmond Williams, who has had a great second half of the season, finished with 28 points for Trumbull. Evan Gutkowski added 16 points and 10 rebounds, while Brown finished with 13.
“They weren’t great at practice yesterday and we had a team meeting and I said people think you’re playing with house money,” Bray said. “We’ve worked extremely hard as a basketball team. Get over the fact that it is a playoff game, get over the fact that you’re playing the best player in the league and get out there and do your job. Do a good job. They know their roles now, bought into it. If we can beat teams like Danbury and Central in the same week. I let them know we’re not happy to just be here.”