FAIRFIELD — Steve Tobitsch took a seat late tonight, a drained look on his face that was occasionally buried in his hands. In front of him the members of his Trumbull girls basketball team, with what little energy they had remaining, were celebrating a 36-34 triple overtime win over Fairfield Warde in the FCIAC semifinals that was more a battle of attrition.
Tobitsch needed a moment before he could join in the revelry.
“I really love this group of seniors, I love this team over all,” Tobitsch said. “I wanted this so bad for them. We were here a year ago and we wanted to get to the finals.”
The top seeded Eagles (21-1), after avenging their lone loss of the season, will meet defending champion Stamford in Thursday night’s final. The Black Knights, after seeing a 17-point second-half lead cut to four with just over two minutes remaining, regrouped for a 59-52 win over Ridgefield.
Tonight’s second game will be remembered for its longevity and grinding play, where suffocating defense and woeful offense crossed paths. It will also be noted for a handful of shining moments, the biggest a 3-point shot by Trumbull’s Taylor Brown with four seconds left in the first overtime that tied the game at 32-32 and rescued her team from suffering a semifinal loss for the second straight season.
Consistent with the evening, the teams combined for just 12 points in the three overtime periods, on a par with that start of play; the score was tied at 5-5 after the first quarter and Warde held an 11-8 halftime lead.
The only scoring in the final overtime was a pair of free throws by Trumbull over 3 1/2 minutes apart.
“This was like old-school Big East, right?” Tobitsch said with a smile. “This was all defensive intensity. We’re basically a man team, we press a lot. We learned from the first time we played them we probably couldn’t keep up with the pace playing fullcourt man and halfcourt man with them so we played a lot of zone, mixed in our man. I thought the girls were really smart with the adjustments that we made. We found a way.”
Brown finished with 11 points to lead Trumbull. Julie Keckler added 7. The Eagles won despite their top scorer, Claudia Tucci, being held to 5 points.
The only flurry of offense came in the third quarter, when Warde, which had won the teams’ previous meeting 11 days ago, 54-53, used a 10-0 run to take the game’s biggest lead at 20-14. Trumbull’s Victoria Ray cut it to a basket with a shot from halfcourt that just beat the buzzer at the end of the quarter. Neither team led by more than two points the rest of the way.
Iliana Krasniqi scored 9 points to pace Warde (15-7). Shania Osborne added 8 points.
Third-seeded Stamford (18-4) avenged one of its two regular season league losses in a game that in retrospect looked like a sprint in comparison to the nightcap. It also reaped the continued benefits of coach Diane Burns’ move to insert freshman Megan Landsiedel into the starting lineup after back to back losses to Ridgefield and Trumbull last month.
That decision allowed Brooke Kelly to go back to her more natural position as the two guard. Kelly finished with a game-high 20 points, 12 in the first quarter as the Black Knights used a 10-0 run in a span of just two minutes that started late in the first half to take a 35-19 lead.
“She was so focused and she was aggressive with the basketball, her defense was great, knocking down the clutch shots. She was excellent,” Stamford coach Diane Burns said.
Kelly agreed being freed from having to run the offense gave her season a reboot.
“It’s really fun because with Megan everyone is able to do what they do best,” Kelly said. “I’m able to go on a wing and she is really good at the position so she is able to drive and kick. I just do what I have to.”
Landsiedel demonstrated she can finish as well as orchestrate, scoring 12 points. Alexa Kellner finished with 9 and Andrea O’Connor and Marthe Guirand, despite first-half foul trouble, added 8 each.
It is the way the box score has looked during what is now a 13-game in-state winning streak.
Stamford’s lone flaw was playing the second half as if it was behind rather than ahead, rushing shots and allowing the Tigers an opportunity they were eager to seize.
“We definitely lost our composure there for a little bit but it was great to see that they fought through and maintained the lead and got it together,” Burns said. “That’s a great growing pain.”
Saddled with foul trouble — top scorer Caroline Curnal sat out a good part of the first half with two fouls and twins Julia and Elizabeth Middlebrook, the Tigers’ point guard and center, respectively, eventually fouled out — Ridgefield spent most of the night playing catch up.
Still, led by Grace Goodwin, the Tigers (17-5) used an 11-1 run to close within 48-44 with 2:51 remaining. On the next possession, out of a halfcourt set, Landsiedel set up O’Connor for a basket inside and the Black Knights regained their composure.
Goodwin scored 15 points for Ridgefield, while Meaghan O’Hara added 14 and Elizabeth Middlebrook scored 10.