WILTON — The Zeoli Fieldhouse was sold out for tonight’s FCIAC boys basketball championship, but the number of people who expected a Ridgefield comeback against Danbury early in the fourth quarter was 20 — the players and coaches on the Tigers’ bench.
The Hatters had dominated in every area and held a 47-37 lead with 3:30 remaining. They were creating and converting open looks. Ridgefield’s shots were more often than not rimming out.
“We got down and I just thought to myself we can’t give up yet, there’s still a lot of time left,” the Tigers’ James St. Pierre said. “Coach didn’t give up on us, none of the players gave up. We put a couple plays together.”
Most of them were by St. Pierre, who rebounded from a slow start to score 13 of his 24 points in the fourth quarter. Coupled with a defensive effort that forced eight turnovers down the stretch and Luke McGarrity’s four straight free throws in the final 32 seconds, the Tigers came back from a 15-point second-half deficit for an improbable 52-49 win.
It was the fifth-seeded Tigers’ second league title in three years.
“I’m super proud of my guys,” Ridgefield coach Andrew McClellan said. “It’s one of these 32-minute things and we played for 32 minutes. We out-executed them down the stretch. I think what happened is we waited a little long to put the pressure on them and then when we did they struggled with it. We were so good on defense that we struggled on offense and once we opened it up a little we were able to get some things going.”
The third-seeded Hatters (19-4), the defending champions, were close to flawless for over three quarters. There was little to foreshadow what would transpire over the final minutes.
Danbury suffered some unforced errors. As Ridgefield (19-4) capitalized, its defense produced even more opportunities.
Danbury scored just two points in the final 3:30, a jumper by Javon Hernadez with 18 seconds left that cut its deficit to 50-49.
McGarrity, who made two free throws prior to the basket, added another pair with 10 seconds left.
“There’s nobody in the gym, go up there and knock them down and I’m just happy I did that,” McGarrity said of his mindset.
Hernandez missed a game-tying attempt in the final seconds.
“At the end of the game it is who has the will to win, who wants it more and at the end we wanted it more,” St. Pierre said.
McGarrity was the only other Ridgefield player to score in the fourth quarter; he had seven of his 13 points. His 3-point shot was followed by a three-point play and 3-point shot by St. Pierre. In 90 seconds the Tigers had trimmed a 10-point deficit to one.
“As a shooter you’re trained to keep shooting no matter what,” said St. Pierre, who lacked his usual touch until the finish. “The ball didn’t drop. A couple of airballs, that didn’t stop me. My teammates didn’t give up on me, they kept feeding me the ball. Luckily I was able to convert for them at the end.”
St. Pierre’s drive with 1:15 remaining gave Ridgefield its first lead since 13-11 late in the first quarter.
“It always plays off our defense,” McClellan said. “We got some turnovers, we got some momentum, we got in the open court. They’re tough to score on in the halfcourt.”
Hernandez finished with 16 points for Danbury. Keyon Moore added 12, while Denali Burton finished with nine points and Jah Joyner eight.
But the Hatters had just two field goals and six points in the final quarter.
“We didn’t execute in the fourth,” Danbury coach Casey Bock said. “They hit a couple big shots and they turned us over a few times and then they’re back in the game. It’s tough. We lost our composure a little bit which is the reason why we lost the game. I just feel bad for my seniors. They did such a great job and to come up short is tough.”
Danbury made seven straight shots at one point in the first half but McClellan was not displeased.
“At halftime I said I loved our defense in the first half,” McClellan said. “Hernandez is tremendous and Moore was hitting shots. I said just stick with it and we’ll be all right. In the third quarter they came out and made more shots but I thought in the fourth quarter we stepped it up and got them out of their game.”
Ridgefield has now won league titles around a regular season first-place finish.
“I’m not sure I can be more proud,” McClellan said. “When I got here I thought it would be hard to accomplish any of those things but three years in a row? Those boys are super mentally tough.”