By Emery Filmer
WILTON – If Yogi Berra was at Thursday’s Westhill-Wilton boys basketball game, he probably would’ve shouted “it’s déjà vu all over again” as the fourth quarter was unfolding.
But the Yankees Hall of Famer, like a lot of people, probably would not be aware that there is something different about this season’s Westhill team. Now a close game late against a tough opponent no longer translates into a disappointing loss for the Vikings.
So, how come?
“Because now,” Westhill coach Howard White said, “they’re seniors.”
Westhill blew a 12-point first-half lead and found itself trailing by four points two minutes into the fourth quarter. In recent years, such a scenario ended badly more often than not. But led by senior guards Jeremiah Livingston and CJ Donaldson and senior center Breanden Thomas, along with a career night from Tyrell Alexander, the Vikings left the Wilton Fieldhouse with a 72-67 Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference victory over the Warriors. It was Westhill’s seventh consecutive win.
“The last few years we were young and they made a lot of mistakes,” White said of his rotation, which includes seven seniors among its first nine. “They’re not making those mistakes anymore.”
Livingston, who admittedly did not play his best, scored a game-high 31 points, with 17 coming in the final quarter when he was 9 for 10 from the free throw line. The Vikings (10-1, 9-0 FCIAC) took their first lead of the second half with under five minutes remaining, lost it for a moment with three minutes left and then outscored the Warriors, 10-3, down the stretch.
Livingston shot 7 for 21 from the field and had as many turnovers (five) as assists. But he finished 14 for 15 from the free-throw line.
“It wasn’t my best game,” said Livingston, who seemed to have the ball in his hands whenever the Vikings had a possession in the fourth quarter. “But when I got to the line late I knocked them down.”
Donaldson, the other half of the Vikings’ tremendous backcourt duo, managed to get the ball to Livingston, the team’s best free-throw shooter, regardless of circumstance.
“I was surprised he missed one,” said Wilton coach Joel Geriak, referring to Livingston’s near perfection from the line in the fourth quarter. “We were triple-teaming him late because we didn’t want him on the line, and they still got him the ball.”
While Livingston’s fourth-quarter heroics saved the Vikings from falling from the unbeaten ranks in league play, he had plenty of help on this night. The Vikings outrebounded the Warriors, 36-28, committed just 10 turnovers and forced 14. And when the backcourt was struggling a bit in the first half, Alexander, the Vikings’ 6-foot-3, 220-pound junior, did his share.
“Tyrell was terrific tonight,” White said. Alexander finished with 24 points and 13 rebounds, and he had 15 and five in the first half. “He really knows how to use his body.”
“(Alexander) had a great game,” Geriak added. “He has a great drop-step down low and he dominated the boards.”
Wilton (7-3, 5-3), led by Scott Shouvlin’s 22 points and 19 from Matt Shifrin, overcame an early 22-10 deficit. A 12-0 run that ended early in the third quarter gave the Warriors a 38-33 lead. Then came a stretch which saw the Warriors miss six of eight free throws and suddenly the Vikings led, 56-55.
“If we make our free throws it’s a whole different game,” Geriak said. The Warriors finished 13 for 22 from the line, but that was after making six of their last seven. Westhill, meanwhile, made 20 of 23 free throws.
Thomas (six points, seven rebounds) scored off a rebound to give the Vikings the lead at 56-55, and added another huge bucket that put Westhill ahead, 60-57. But then, with Shifrin scoring eight of his 19 points in the final quarter, the Warriors went on a 7-2 spurt to take a 64-62 lead with two minutes remaining.
What was that Yogi?
But Livingston made seven free throws in a row and reminded everyone that these are the new – senior-laden – Vikings.
NOTES: Wilton, which shot 23 for 49 from the floor, was 15 for 22 in the second and third periods. Westhill finished 23 for 59 shooting. … Michael Bingaman had 11 rebounds and Luke Savoie had seven for Wilton. … Based on the standings going into Thursday’s games, the Vikings are now 4-0 (wins over Danbury, Stamford, Trumbull, Wilton) against the eight teams currently holding playoff positions while the Warriors are 0-3 (losses to Trumbull, Stamford and Westhill).