Boys Basketball

Tigers Score Early Knockout, Topple Staples To Earn No. 1 Playoff Seed

Ridgefield’s Dylan Veillette goes over the Wreckers’ Ethan Cukier to score a basket. (Mark Conrad)

RIDGEFIELD — If you cannot completely control how often you put the ball in the basket, you can at least influence the rate your opponent does.

That sentence pretty much sums up this Covid-affected and abbreviated FCIAC boys basketball season, so it was fitting in the final game before the playoffs, with the regular-season title and top seed at stake, Ridgefield would summon a stifling defensive performance to sweep the prize categories.

The Tigers made it impossible for Staples to find passing lanes or get open looks. They used a 10-0 run that started at the end of the first quarter to take a nine-point lead, then continued to build on it the rest of the way, finally putting the exclamation point on a 73-50 win.

The Wreckers’ Ryan Thompson tries to stop Ridgefield’s Matt Knachel from scoring on a layup. (Mark Conrad)

“They were really dialed in,” Ridgefield coach Andrew McClellan said. “We had a walkthrough and you could tell they were up for this game. And the attention to detail — we call it dominating the details — they were all over it from start to finish.”

Before setting out after its second straight league crown and fourth in five years, the Tigers (11-1) first made sure to wrap up the regular season title for the second year in a row. Staples (10-2), which played so well two nights earlier in a win against St. Joseph to position itself for a chance at the No. 1 seed, instead will be in the third position.

Matt Knachel, who was matched up against the Wreckers’ Derek Sale, finished with a game-high 20 points, eight more than Sale, who was held to just one 3-point shot in the first half.

Staples’ Ethan Cukier passes off to a teammate from the baseline. (Mark Conrad)

“We call that a two-way player and he’s been a great two-way player for us,” McClellan said. “He’s kind of been a little bit better and a little bit better and has become a huge player for us. Amos (Grey) and he are our top two defenders. Matthew usually takes the more ‘point-guard-y’ guy because he’s a little smaller.

Grey defended Lucas Basich, who led the Wreckers with 18 points but scored two-thirds of them after Ridgefield had taken a 33-21 halftime lead.”

Knachel, who is equally effective creating plays, not surprisingly deflected credit for the defensive effort.

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“We knew (Sale) was a confident, aggressive scorer and we were ready for it,” Knachel said. “It was a team effort on defense. It is not I guarded Sale, Amos guarded Basich. It’s a team effort and we executed really well.”

The Wreckers lacked much of the energy from 48 hours earlier, though Ridgefield was a large factor in that. Staples forced itself into trap situations on a number of occasions and lacked the confident shot selection that has been an asset most of the season.

“For as well as we played the other night against St. Joe’s, it was that poorly we played today, and I think Ridgefield had a lot to do with that,” Staples coach Colin Devine said. “We didn’t have any answers today, which is on me. It was a perfect storm of us not doing what we needed to do and them doing what they do, which is being disruptive. We have to get back to two good days of practice before starting the playoffs.

Ridgefield’s Justin DiFabio drives and dishes to Matt Eiben for a basket. (Mark Conrad)

The Wreckers were still in the game at the break, but that soon changed as Ridgefield opened the third quarter with a 10-2 run, with Knachel accounting for the final eight points.

Emmett O’Malley added 13 points, including 8 in a 57-second span in the second quarter, and Dylan Veillette finished with 12 for Ridgefield.

Since losing to New Canaan, which ended a 21-game winning streak, the Tigers have rebounded and will take a four-game winning streak into the playoffs.

“I feel like we have showed up every single game,” McClellan said. “Because of the Covid season you didn’t know what was going to go on but we lost about 75 percent of our scoring and 80 percent of our rebounding. For these guys to be back where they were, it’s a huge tribute to how hard they worked.”