NEW CANAAN — It took a defensive stand of 5.1 seconds — ranking with the longest 5.1 seconds to ever end a basketball game considering there were three exchanges of possession without the clock moving — for Wilton to gut out its biggest victory of the season.
New Canaan’s Christian Sweeney missed an off-balance game-winning attempt at the buzzer as the Warriors held on for a 37-35 road win tonight.
Wilton’s defense was one of the few constants and positives in a game that, for a variety of reasons, saw both teams struggle to approach their capabilities. But after allowing just four points in the final quarter, Wilton mustered a final stand.
“I told them good teams find a way to win and we did that today,” Wilton coach Joel Geriak said. “We made a lot of mistakes. We didn’t play anywhere close to a good game for us. Give credit to them because their defense made you do that. Our gameplan against their man-to-man offense I thought was a pretty good one. We did a pretty good job making them work for their shots.”
That was the case on the decisive play. The Rams (7-2), 48 hours after completing back to back wins over unbeaten teams, started the game behind 16-2. They surged back and had a seven-point lead midway through the third quarter.
Wilton (6-2) ended the game on a 13-4 run and broke a 33-33 tie on a pair of layups by Parker Woodring, off of steals, 14 seconds apart.
New Canaan’s Blake Wilson came up with his own steal and was fouled while converting it into a basket. Wilson missed the free throw, giving Wilton a 37-35 lead with 54.4 seconds remaining.
Wilton barely avoided a series of traps while trying to work time off the clock and New Canaan, with the possession arrow in its favor, finally forced a tie-up with 23 seconds left.
New Canaan, running time down for a final shot, was called for traveling with 5.1 seconds left, but Wilton could not get the ball inbounds and was hit with a five-second violation, giving the Rams a final chance to tie or complete a perfect week.
“It was great to come out here and get the dub against a really good team,” said the Warriors’ Josh White, who finished with 15 points and by far was the most effective player in the game offensively. “We haven’t really showed that against any other team besides Ridgefield this year. Our defense was impeccable. We had kids coming off the bench with a ton of energy. Getting steals, getting in transition. Not a lot of shots fell for both teams but we stayed consistent pushing the pace.”
Wilson and Leo Magnus, who was forced from the game after twice falling and hitting his head on the court, finished with nine points apiece for the Rams.
New Canaan more than validated its status as an FCIAC title contender when in a 48-hour span it defeated Staples and Ridgefield, which were both unbeaten at the time. The win against the Tigers in particular was notable both because of the high level of play and two overtimes were needed to decide a winner. It was also a defensive stop on an inbounds play that secured the win.
Tonight the Warriors were the more assertive team. Both sides were playing for the third time in four days and it showed. New Canaan coach Danny Melzer would not attribute the outcome to the emotional fallout from the week.
“We didn’t come out ready, they kind of punched us in the mouth and we weren’t ready for that,” Melzer said. “I am proud of the way we battled back and took the lead. They were clearly the more physical team. They took us out of our game. They bullied us a little bit. It was pretty bad execution down the stretch. As a coach I’ve got to do a better job in that situation.”
The storyline of getting a season started during the pandemic has segued into a focus on playoff positioning, with a week left until the start of a league tournament each school will get to participate in.
Unbeaten St. Joseph now has the inside track for the top seed, while Ridgefield and Staples, which meet to end the season next Saturday, are currently tied for the No. 2 spot. Wilton and New Canaan also meet on that day in a rematch that could provide a critical tiebreaking advantage.
“We’re getting better,” said Geriak, whose team went into a quarantine pause for two weeks after the second day of practice and has been playing an extra game each week to get a full schedule in. “We’re coming into our own. We just have to get a little more practice time, which we don’t get too much of.”