NEW HAVEN — The Westhill boys basketball team found itself several times in the closing minutes of Tuesday’s Class LL semifinal game with Hartford Public having to make a stop to preserve a lead.
It was a more intense ending than the 12 previous times the Vikings had played a game decided by six or fewer points, and they had only lost once.
Or, as their star guard, Jeremiah Livingston, put it, “We’ve been in these predicaments before.”
After Hartford Public missed two game-tying attempts at the buzzer, Westhill found itself with a 50-47 win at the Floyd Little Athletic Center and a trip to the state championship for the first time.
It is almost as if the players would be bored by a nice old-fashioned blowout.
“I wasn’t really nervous,” guard CJ Donaldson said with a smile. “I know my team. We’re never really nervous. We never get down on ourselves. We play ball.”
Donaldson and his teammates might not have needed another roll or two with the deodorant, but their coach, Howard White, admitted he might have been tempted if there had been a Xanax nearby.
“You bet I was nervous,” White said, his dress shirt dotted with sweat stains. “We had to dig down deep inside.”
If everyone is to be believed, the Westhill players went rogue in strategy that almost derailed their efforts. With a 37-26 lead midway through the third quarter and all the momentum on their side, the Vikings started to kill time.
Turnovers soon mounted and the Owls’ Shakeem James went on a Livingston-like streak of his own, scoring 11 points in a 12-3 run that whittled the Vikings’ lead down to 40-38 heading into the final quarter.
The Vikings continued to be methodical in the last eight minutes, and never led by more than four points in what emerged as a chess game.
“I didn’t decide to slow it down at all,” White said. “That was them. Once we slowed it down it allowed them to pick it up, and we can’t do that.”
Asked about the strategy, Donaldson said, “We were trying to eat clock but we were also trying to get to the free throw line and let them foul us. We’ve got enough ballhandlers to slow it down. (White) didn’t want us to slow it down.”
The Cardiac Kids survived. Livingston, who finished with 23 points, scored six of the team’s final eight points, including a pair of free throws with 12 seconds left.
The third-seeded Owls (21-3) tied the game at 44-44 on a 3-point shot by Jordan Alexander with 5:41 remaining but could never take the lead.
Livingston, pressured in a way he hasn’t been all season, even had two fourth-quarter turnovers, though they turned out to be mere blips in the big picture.
“They played tough defense and their big guy altered some shots,” Livingston said. “But we played tough defense too.”
Indeed, the Vikings (25-1) saw their season continue on this day not because of Livingston’s late heroics, but with a stifling defense that equalled and even surpassed, ever so slightly, Hartford Public’s. The Vikings scored just 10 points in the fourth quarter. But the Owls were held to nine.
“They played great defense,” White said. “That was the key. That and we’ve been here before. We’re used to winning ballgames.”
Now the Vikings get one more day, one more game, one more than any previous team in school history has ever played.
A chance to turn a storybook ride into etched history.
“It feels great to be one of the people to lead us there,” Livingston said. “We don’t want to go to Mohegan Sun and not have a fourth quarter go our way. I can’t wait.”
Do Livingston and the Vikings had one more win left in them?
“Yes, I think so.”