FAIRFIELD — Ridgefield High School point guard Jess Camarda said one of her team’s best qualities is its resiliency.
“We have a lot of poise and that helps us hold things together,” Camarda said after the Tigers pulled off the biggest surprise of the FCIAC girls basketball tournament on Tuesday night, upsetting top-seeded Wilton in the second semifinal, 49-47.
It ended a 20-game winning streak for the Warriors (20-2), who saw their conference season start with a loss to Fairfield Ludlowe and end on the Falcons’ court.
The Tigers’ bend-but-don’t break commodity was tested throughout.
Ridgefield will meet No. 3 Greenwich, which rallied late in the first semifinal to defeat Fairfield Warde, 47-44, for the title.
After a near-flawless first quarter that was punctuated by a 12-0 run, the fifth-seeded Tigers (19-3) had a commanding 29-13 lead with 3:15 left in the half.
Wilton, seemingly inexplicably, went to a zone, and Ridgefield, similarly inexplicably, pulled the ball out despite the momentum.
Wilton ended the half with 12 unanswered points to close within 29-25.
“We tried to get them back to man-to-man,” said Tom DiMarzo, the Tigers’ first-year coach. “We felt we had them. We had some mental breakdowns.”
Wilton twice got within two points in the third quarter, first when Erica Meyer opened it with an inside basket, then when Erin Cunningham answered a 3-pointer by Ridgefield’s Carly Mercede with one of her own.
Most teams would have folded, especially against a team as formidable as the Warriors, but the Tigers responded with eight straight points to go ahead, 40-30.
“It was scary at times but we played like a team,” Camarda said. “We kept getting stops and attacking.”
Wilton made one final run in the fourth quarter, scoring eight straight points to get within 49-47 with 1:54 left after Meyer made a block on the defensive end and then converted two free throws.
Those turned out to be the final points of the game. Haley English’s shot at the buzzer was off target.
Mercede led a balanced attack with 13 points for Ridgefield, which last won a league title in 1996. Camarda and Meaghan O’Hara added 12 points apiece and Rebecca Lawrence finished with 7.
Cunningham scored 13 points and Meyer 10 to lead Wilton.
The Tigers’ magic was best evident at the end of the third quarter, when DiMarzo called a curious timeout with 1.1 seconds left and the ball under the Wilton basket. A perfectly executed play resulted in Lawrence getting the ball and hitting a short jumper.
“Just the way we drew it up,” DiMarzo said with a smile. “We stuck together tonight. The plan was to take Cunningham away. Cunningham is a great player, though English is the engine. We did a good job.”
Greenwich 47, Fairfield Warde 44
Greenwich coach Chrys Hernandez said that Alexa Moses, one of her five seniors, is a spontaneous player. She did not specify if that was a positive or negative attribute, likely because it depends on the situation and result.
Hernandez was happy with the outcome after Moses, with nine seconds left, stole a deflected inbounds pass by teammate Abbie Wolf and calmly hit a 3-point shot to put the Cardinals ahead, 45-44. Emma Banker added two free throws as Greenwich scored the game’s final seven points in a 21-second span for the win.
“I give them opportunities and let them make plays,” Hernandez said. “I don’t draw up every X and O.”
Hernandez said option one on a steal was a timeout, save for an uncontested layup. A 3-point shot was unscripted.
“That’s Alexa,” Hernandez said. “Alexa can be a very impulsive player but she always does it with good intentions.”
Moses did not dispute her coach’s words. She didn’t even remember how the ball ended up in her hands prior to the decisive shot.
“I made sure I was behind the line,” Moses said. “It would have been bad if I was in front of it. I asked if there was a wide open layup if I could take it and I got the 3 and decided to take the 3.”
A defensive struggle opened up in the final period. Warde was without starting point guard Lejla Markovic, who injured her shoulder in the quarterfinals, and her replacement, Daja Polk, and top scorer Iliana Krasniqi got into early foul trouble.
There were six stretches in the last quarter when the teams traded spurts of scoring on consecutive possessions.
Sarah Cotto had a great game, with 18 points for Warde (19-3). Shania Osborne added 9.
Wolf finished with 13 points for Greenwich (18-4). Caroline Beneville added 10.
“Defensively we knew the plays that Warde was going to run,” Hernandez said. “We knew they like that inside-outside game. We did a pretty good job of taking away what they wanted to do.”
The Cardinals’ last league championship came in 1988.
In Thursday’s final, one long drought will be coming to an end.