Oral Roberts. Abilene Christian. North Texas.
Westhill boys basketball coach Howard White will not be at a loss for motivational tools over the next 48 hours, as he prepares for Friday’s FCIAC championship game at Ridgefield. The FCIAC Tournament, with the second and third seeds going down on opening day, looked liked Swiss cheese until the NCAA Tournament commenced last week.
Most have already written off the Vikings, who will be a decided underdog against a team that has won the last two and three of the previous four titles.
As city schools, after dominating the sport since the FCIAC was established, have recently seen their talent pools dried up for reasons no one can pinpoint, the Tigers have gladly jumped in and filled the bill. They have used an offense fueled off defense and a taste of success to attract more players in a town where football, lacrosse and hockey solely ruled.
Most considered the Tigers’ 62-49 semifinal win over New Canaan last night the de facto title game. They are the two best teams, played a double overtime classic weeks ago that stood out in a season of mostly nondescript games and the Rams had the personnel to best match up against Ridgefield.
And they did — for 26 minutes. That’s when the Tigers’ habit of playing well down the stretch kicked in. They were more mistake-free, got to the foul line and made enough shots to turn a close game into a somewhat comfortable finish.
New Canaan’s Danny Melzer is one of several coaches with teams on the sustained upswing, trying to emulate the Ridgefield template. Build up the youth programs. Get good athletes and, preferably, basketball players. Find a niche in a strong sports town.
The Rams have come a long way since this current class of seniors were freshmen, which turned Melzer understandably emotional after last night’s game, which did not yield the birthday present he most sought.
“I know that’s hard for them to understand that right now,” Melzer said. “When we got to New Canaan, what these seniors have accomplished, in terms of making New Canaan basketball relevant, in terms of making New Canaan basketball one of the best programs in the FCIAC, that’s what I’m proud of.”
The Tigers have found different paths to the holy grail. Two years ago it was mainly riding the magnificence of James St. Pierre, who had one of the best individual seasons in recent league history. The last two seasons it has been more collaborative.
Luke McGarrity, who happened to be home for the start of spring break and attended last night’s game, was FCIAC Player of the Year last winter, but his value was not as a pure scorer but doing everything well.
This year Matt Knachel is emerging as the Tigers’ new shiny toy. He scored 23 points last night and his free throw shooting helped carry the team over the finish line. You can make an argument — I certainly can — he has been the league’s best player over the second half of the season. He has scored over 20 points several times, does a good job running the offense and draws difficult defensive assignments.
As I make final decisions on my own All-FCIAC teams — a more challenging task this winter than most — I checked out Ridgefield’s scorebook before last night’s game. While points is often used as but is hardly the sole judge of value, the Tigers have had several different leading scorers as they have won seven in a row since New Canaan stopped their 21-game winning streak.
Now come the sixth-seeded Vikings (10-5), who at the start of the season were tabbed as the best of the teams below the top tier, which turned out to be their destination spot. They are 0-3 against teams ahead of them in the standings but have just one bad loss.
White has ensured that his players reached their potential, and they have blown out their first three playoff opponents, throttling Fairfield Warde last night.
Jeyson Slade has been the Vikings’ leader and the scoring has been balanced. White said defensive intensity is the key to his team’s success.
No one is expecting the Vikings to make the trip north and come away with a win on Friday, which is a liberating feeling if White can make sure his players stay loose and realize they have nothing to lose. They earned the opportunity.
Asked if it was difficult to have to play one more game after defeating New Canaan, McClellan said, “Westhill doesn’t feel that way. They won their side of the bracket, it’s a championship game, I can’t remember the last time my guys overlooked someone.”
Oral Roberts. Abilene Christian. North Texas. Throw in Hoosiers.
Pass the popcorn.