By Emery Filmer
STAMFORD – They had just won their school’s first boys basketball championship in 26 years five days earlier, and now the No. 2 seed Westhill High School Vikings were going to face the No. 15 seed in the round of the 16 in the Class LL Tournament. In addition, the opponent Wednesday was an East Hartford team that would be playing without two starting seniors who were dropped from the squad for breaking team rules a week ago.
So, it might have been somewhat understandable if some folks were expecting the Vikings to come out slightly overconfident Wednesday.
Some — but not Vikings coach Howard White.
“They’ve got to be ready to play as if it’s their last game,” White said after the Vikings overcame a sluggish start and, led by guards Jeremiah Livingston and CJ Donaldson, held on for a 49-47 victory, their 20th consecutive win. “(East Hartford) wants to move forward just like we do.”
The problem, actually, went beyond just the expected brashness. The Hornets were a playoff team in the strong Central Connecticut Conference and, despite the personnel losses, were clearly not your ordinary No. 15 seed.
“A 15th seed? Are you kidding me,” White said.
But thanks to their talented backcourt duo, plus some much-needed help up front from Tyrell Alexander and Brendon Thomas, the Vikings (23-1) were able to survive the scare and advance to Friday’s quarterfinal. The Vikings won’t be facing Norwalk, a team they beat 64-60 in last Friday’s Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference final. Norwalk, the 10 seed, lost to No. 7 Crosby, 78-73, Wednesday, so it will Crosby at Westhill Friday at 7 p.m.
East Hartford led for most of the first half and had a 27-21 lead two minutes into the third quarter before the Vikings, who have made a habit of winning close games this season, realized that this could actually be their last game of the season.
“We have the bull’s-eye on our back, so we can’t overlook anybody,” Alexander said. “We can’t be happy just settling for the FCIAC (championship).”
“Winning the FCIAC, well, we’re not going to ever forget that,” added Donaldson, who had 14 points, five assists and four steals. “But this is something different, the state tournament, so we have to put (the FCIAC) behind us and go get this.”
Livingston, who had 40 points in Westhill’s win over Norwalk last Friday, led the Vikings with 19 points and four assists.
Donaldson keyed a critical 13-0 third-quarter spurt that gave Westhill a 34-27 lead with three minutes remaining in the period against a pesky, somewhat rebuilt East Hartford squad.
“We put this team together in the last week,” East Hartford coach Ed Lavoie said after his team finished 14-9. “We lost two seniors and this all came together in a week.”
Freshman Isiah Williams was inserted in the starting lineup and led the Hornets with 16 points. He made four 3-pointers and was 6-for-10 from the field as the Hornets proved a tough out. An 11-2 run, keyed by Williams, gave East Hartford a 38-36 lead early in the fourth quarter.
But then Westhill, led by Donaldson and fellow ballhandler Livingston, played a virtual flawless fourth quarter and held on.
“We played well in the fourth quarter and CJ ignited that,” White said. “He was determined not to lose.”
“I don’t like to lose,” Donaldson added after yet another Florida State football-like victory by the Vikings. “It helps that we’ve been in this position before.”
The Vikings did not commit a turnover in the final eight minutes and made 5 of 8 field goal attempts. The defense, led by Alexander (11 points, nine rebounds), forced East Hartford into a 3 for 15 shooting performance in the fourth quarter.
“We had a chance at the end but we didn’t execute down the stretch,” Lavoie said.
After East Hartford tied the game at 40, the Vikings made it 45-40 on a basket by Livingston, a free throw by Thomas (eight rebounds) and a pretty Livingston-to-Alexander basket with three minutes remaining. Then, trailing, 49-43, in the final minute, East Hartford got within two and had possession in the final seconds but Donaldson beautifully defended against a driving Trayson Patterson with one second remaining. After the ball went out of bounds, the Hornets had .7 of a second for one last chance but couldn’t get off a shot.
NOTES: Joshua Williams added 11 points and 10 rebounds for East Hartford. Tariq Ricketts chipped in with eight boards for the Hornets, who committed 13 turnovers and forced 11. … Westhill’s only loss was to Weston 51-50 on Jan. 3. … While Westhill had a first-round bye, East Hartford advanced with a 45-40 victory over No. 18 Glastonbury on Monday. … East Hartford led by as much as six and trailed by as much as seven, but that’s nothing compared to the Hornets’ two games against Weaver this season. They beat Weaver by 22 points on Jan. 19, then lost to the same squad by 28 on Feb. 17. … The Vikings made 20 of 48 field goal attempts compared to 17 of 46 for East Hartford. The Hornets outrebounded Westhill, 33-25.