FAIRFIELD — Basketball coaches tend to use “junk” defenses in times of desperation. Sometimes, when trying to stop one explosive player, the box-and-one and other out-of-the-norm sets can work. But when the other team has three, four or five dangerous weapons, well, it’s only a matter of time before it all catches up to you.
Such was the situation St. Joseph faced in its FCIAC quarterfinal tonight against Trumbull and star guard Timmond Williams. The strategy worked for a little while, but in the end Trumbull just had too much talent and earned a semifinal berth with an 87-72 victory at Fairfield Warde.
Trumbull (18-3) will face No. 5 Ridgefield, a 51-44 winner over New Canaan in tonight’s first game, in the semifinals.
Williams made all eight of his shots in the first quarter — 5 for 5 from 3-point range — when the top-seeded Eagles jumped to an early 17-3 lead, and the senior scored 22 of his 40 points. Then St. Joseph coach Kevin Wielk was forced to go to the box-and-one in an attempt to bottle Williams up, and the No. 8-seeded Cadets held Williams scoreless in the second quarter.
“I got good looks and came out with a bang,” said Williams, who has a chance to become Trumbull’s all-time leading scorer before the season ends. “But we tend to let teams get back in.”
Two minutes into the third quarter St. Joseph had cut Trumbull’s lead to just three points. But sooner or later…
“We just have too much for anyone to run junk defenses against us,” Trumbull coach Buddy Bray said.
Give the Cadets credit, though, for making this a game after it looked as if the Eagles would blow them out. Steve Paolini led the Cadets with 25 points and nine rebounds, Paul Fabbri had 14 points and six rebounds, Dan Tobin had nine boards and Brendan Kade had 11 points.
“Williams was on fire in the first quarter, he was really feeling it,” Wielk said. “We stopped him for a little while but they’re just too good a team.”
“Timmond is a very talented young man,” Bray added. “When he shoots the ball, he expects it to go in.”
The Eagles scored 45 points in the final 14 minutes. Williams added seven rebounds, five assists and two blocks but received plenty of help.
Chris Brown had 22 of his 28 points in the second half while Maleeq Green had 13 points, six assists and, despite being the smallest player among Trumbull’s starters, had a game-high 12 rebounds. Meanwhile, center Evan Gutowski had six rebounds and would have had a greater impact had he not picked up his fourth foul early in the third quarter. The Eagles’ other starter, Quentar Taylor, left in the third quarter with an ankle injury.
All in all, despite the foul trouble and the injury, the Eagles just had too much for the Cadets (11-10), who lost for the sixth time in their last seven games.
“You just can’t concentrate on one of us,” said Williams, who had 18 points in the second half as Brown and others forced the Cadets to abandon the box-and-one. “(Brown) was great and Maleeq does everything for us. Without him, we wouldn’t be here.”
Brown keyed a third-quarter run that opened the Trumbull lead to nine, and he and Williams were the main forces behind the Eagles’ 11-1 spurt in the fourth quarter that expanded the lead to 17 and sealed the victory.
Ridgefield 51, New Canaan 44
There is not a statistic for it but it certainly proved the difference in Ridgefield’s victory over New Canaan in the opener of the evening doubleheader.
Ridgefield had it. New Canaan did not.
“We have a lot of kids with playoff experience,” Ridgefield coach Andrew McClellan said after his team earned a berth in Tuesday’s semifinals. “When we were able to get them out of their comfort zone, it just snowballed.”
Ridgefield made deep postseason runs each of the last two years and won the FCIAC championship in 2017. New Canaan was playing in the tournament for the first time in 11 years.
One of Tigers’ most experienced players is senior guard James St. Pierre, and when his team got in trouble, down eight points early in the third quarter, he was the calmest — and clearly the best — player on the court.
“Our experience was huge,” said St. Pierre, who led all scorers with 27 points, 18 in the decisive second half. “We got down but knew we were OK and never gave up.”
New Canaan (16-5), the No. 4 seed, shook off a slow start to take a 25-17 lead two minutes into the third quarter and seemed to be in control of the game. But Danny Melzer’s team had no answer for the No. 5-seeded Tigers (15-6) — or for St. Pierre — over the next 11 minutes.
“St. Pierre can get you a bucket whenever they needed it and they all made big shots,” Melzer said. Ridgefield’s 27-10 spurt turned the Rams’ eight-point lead into a nine-point deficit with four minutes remaining in the game. “Their experience really showed down the stretch.”
With St. Pierre scoring 11 fourth-quarter points, the Tigers built a 10-point lead and New Canaan never got closer than seven.
“James makes everyone’s job easier,” McClellan said. “He’s so dynamic. And he’s oh, so much more than a shooter.”
Chris Knachel had nine points and five rebounds for Ridgefield.
Matt Brand led the Rams with 13 points and five rebounds. Alex Gibbens added 12 points and six rebounds while Jack Richardson had seven boards.