FAIRFIELD — And then there were two.
And wouldn’t you know it, after this crazy, unpredictable, every-changing-landscape-of-a-season, the FCIAC boys championship game will come down to a contest that almost all agree features the two most talented teams in the league.
In one corner you have Westhill, 21-1, the top seed and unbeaten in league play. Its chart is a straight line across the top.
In the other corner is Norwalk, 17-5, the third seed, with a chart that looks like the stock market graph during a nervous week. For nearly three years the Bears had been unable to shake the “can’t win the big one tag,” and were 2-5 against the rest of the playoff field during the regular season; one win came after nearly blowing a 17-point lead.
Many, in fact, believe the Bears have the best talent in the league.
On Friday night at Warde they get to prove it after dispatching of Bassick and Wilton in the first two rounds.
In fact there were many similarities to the finalists’ semifinal victories.
Norwalk had to fight off a spirited charge from Wilton, pulling away in the fourth quarter for a 69-55 win after a 22-point performance from its star, Roy Kane.
Westhill had a tough time dispatching of Trumbull, which played a near-flawless first half but was done in over the second by Jeremiah Livingston, who scored 30 of his 38 points in the last 16 minutes, including 21 in the fourth quarter.
After navigating the maze that was the last two months, we finally have the two best teams. Norwalk last won the conference championship in 1998; Westhill you have to go back to 1989.4TH QUARTER WESTHILL-TRUMBULL HIGHLIGHTS: THE BEST OF JEREMIAH LIVINGSTON
So what is it going to take for these teams to end their drought before what should be a capacity crowd?
Regular readers here know it is my belief that the Bears would have been better off during the regular season using man-to-man pressure as a base defense and their zone situationally because of superior athleticism.
Against Westhill they take on an opponent that matches them in that area, with Livingston easily able to beat defenders off the dribble.
Norwalk had the tendency to get sluggish in the zone, but that was not the case against Wilton. It will need the same intensity on the defensive end against the Vikings, whose outside shooting is not a weakness but also not their greatest strength.
While Livingston was the overwhelming choice for Player of the Year, Kane got the second-most votes, and deservedly so. He is a game-changer not just scoring, but on the boards and as an inside defender. He is currently playing his best ball.
Given that one would expect Livingston and Kane to be at their best, this game may come down to which supporting cast delivers the most. Zaire Wilson was more dominant during the first half of the season than the second, but he is still a formidable force and consistent double-figure scorer.
Guard Jeremy Linton is a streaky outside shooter. When he is on, the Bears are tougher to defend.
And then there is AJ Jerome, who stepped up with 15 points and 12 rebounds against Wilton in just his second start (his first was Saturday). If Jerome can put up those numbers again, Westhill will be in trouble.
Jeremiah Livingston said after the Trumbull game that he has not stepped up enough this season.
Is he sleepwalking?
More likely, he has become like the fans: so accustomed to his greatness in taking over games that it has become a norm, like jump balls to start play.
Livingston was sensational in the final quarter against the Eagles and has been all season. One reason for the Vikings’ success is even in close games, he refuses to let them lose.
As great as Livingston has been, it is an injustice not to give his teammates their due. Tyrell Alexander has been Mr. Double-Double most of then year, and when he is scoring and rebounding at that rate, Westhill has usually had a greater comfort margin. Alexander can also hit the outside shot and rebounds greater than his height.
CJ Donaldson doesn’t attract much attention, but if he can contribute offensively, it opens things up for Livingston. Usually coach Howard White can count on a productive scoring night from someone among a pool of Donaldson, Brendon Thomas or Juan Delacruz.
The key for the Vikings might end up being on the defensive end, where they can be both stifling and occasionally lazy. The latter was the case in the first half against Trumbull, which took full advantage. The Vikings tightened things up in the second half.
When White gets on his players, it is usually about their performance defending the basket. How they execute that might just end up being the deciding factor in what is a very appealing championship game.