RIDGEFIELD — Though many of the players who were on the court for Ridgefield’s boys basketball team during the closing minutes of tonight’s FCIAC Tournament semifinal against New Canaan had seats on the bench during last year’s title run, that view has turned out to be like an introductory guidebook for the program.
One can almost hear Tigers coach Andrew McClellan going up and down the bench, in hushed tone, reminding a future class to pay careful attention to the forthcoming 32-minute tutorial, for it too will one day have to execute late in a big game to become a champion.
With Ridgefield one point up on the Rams tonight with just over six minutes remaining, this year’s model of title aspirants performed much like last year’s, and the one before that.
The Tigers’ defense did not allow a point for nearly five minutes, the catalyst to an 11-0 run that proved the difference in a 62-49 victory, bringing them to the doorstep of a third straight conference title and fourth in five years.
“I think we got a bunch of stops and we were able to spread them out a little bit,” McClellan said. “What we try to do is get out in transition. I think they limited us in the first half and at halftime that’s what we talked about. We made a couple of adjustments. In the fourth quarter they had to come after us and that was a recipe for success for us.”
All but four of the top-seeded Tigers’ final 18 points came from the foul line, with guards Matt Knachel and Justin DiFabio helping to close out the win. Two of the newcomers to the starting lineup this season, Knachel finished with 23 points — he was 12 for 14 from the line — and DiFabio added 12.
“It has been big for us all year long when we get ahead of people. We usually do a better job than that of shooting free throws but we made enough and we made the ones to spread the lead,” McClellan said. “If you have to come after us and put us on the free throw line we have a bunch of good shooters.”
Though the fifth-seeded Rams (11-4) ended Ridgefield’s 21-game win streak earlier this month, the Tigers still need to stamp one more win to take home the title. It will host sixth-seeded Westhill in Friday night’s final. The Vikings defeated Warde, 63-41, in tonight’s other semifinal. The teams played at Westhill at the beginning of the season, with Ridgefield winning by 17.
Ridgefield’s plane is where New Canaan coach Danny Melzer is trying to direct his program, and this season he got another step closer. His players answered runs by the Tigers with ones of their own, but they made just three field goals in the final quarter, one over the last 6:43.
“I thought we got good looks, they just didn’t fall,” Melzer said. “Sometimes that happens in basketball. They got to the line a ton and we didn’t, and that was one of the major differences in the game. They killed us in transition. That is something that we will look back on and regret, but we’re not going to have any regrets about how hard we played and about how much these guys mean to the program.”
Christian Sweeney and Blake Wilson finished with 13 points each and Leo Magnus added 12 for New Canaan.
While tonight’s rematch lacked some of the thrills of the earlier masterpiece, which New Canaan won at home in double overtime, that might have been an unreachable goal. After a slow start both teams played well and had stretches when they seemed on the verge of separation from the other.
An 8-0 run gave Ridgefield (14-1) an 18-14 advantage early in the second quarter, but the Rams quickly tied the game and used eight unanswered points of their own to take the lead before Knachel’s drive right before the buzzer at halftime tied the game at 26-26.
Ridgefield scored eight straight points early in the third quarter but New Canaan matched it one point better to go ahead, 38-37.
That would be its final lead.
Knachel had 12 of his 23 points in the final quarter.
“I don’t think there’s a better point guard in the league and I think he showed that tonight,” McClellan said. “He showed that the whole second half of the season.”