STAMFORD — Though his team started its season with losses in four of its first six games, Westhill boys basketball coach Howard White knew his squad had the pieces in place to accomplish something special.
“I saw it in early February, to me, it was just a matter of when they were going to bring it all together,” White said tonight, following the Vikings’ latest victory — a triumph in which they, indeed, put it all together.
Continuing an impressive three-week surge, sixth-seeded Westhill extended its winning streak to five games with a decisive 63-41 triumph over No. 10 Fairfield Warde in the FCIAC Tournament semifinals.
The Vikings, who last won the FCIAC basketball title in 2016, advanced to Saturday’s conference final, where they will play Ridgefield. The top-seeded, defending champion Tigers defeated New Canaan in tonight’s other semifinal.
“It feels great to move on, we’ve worked hard this season, we’ve worked hard the offseason and it all came together,” Vikings senior guard Ben Pennella said. “Now we’re going to try and win this one.”
Junior forward Aidan Lamothe scored a game-high 17 points and enabled Westhill to get second and third shots on several occasions with strong rebounding, while junior guard Jeyson Slade added 13 points in the win.
“Just playing together and understanding each other’s role and what each other can do has been the key to our success,” said Slade, who paced the Vikings’ offense with his consistent penetration against the Mustangs’ man-to-man defense. “It feels really good to be moving on to the finals.”
The defeat marked the second straight season Warde (6-7) was eliminated in the semifinal round. The Mustangs were seeking their first appearance in the final.
“As a whole coaches look to see if a team got better by the end of the year and I felt like we were playing our best basketball,” Warde coach Ryan Swaller said. “We just ran into a hot Westhill team that’s playing extremely well at all levels. Inside, outside and defensively and offensively, they’ve been playing well.”
Senior forward Robert Bettes and junior forward Demian Vial scored eight points apiece for the Mustangs, who were edged by Westhill in overtime, 48-47, during the regular season.
Since a 2-4 start to their season, the Vikings have won eight of their last nine games and their last three victories have been by more than 15 points.
“One of the main things we wanted to do was to get better every day,” White said. “We were trying to define ourselves as a unit at the beginning of the season and we had to figure each other out. They did a good job of that and they enjoy playing with each other. They pick each other up.”
Westhill held a 16-7 lead on Warde after the first quarter, then took a 24-19 advantage into halftime. Slade scored six points in the first quarter, four of which came off fastbreak layups.
Senior forward Grayson Miller scored off an offensive rebound and Slade converted a layup off a strong drive through the middle of the Mustangs’ man-to-man defense, giving the home team a 24-15 lead late in the second quarter.
A pair of foul shots by Karl Schmidt and a basket just before the buzzer by Jack Plesser brought Warde to within 24-15 at halftime. That was the closest the Mustangs came however, as the Vikings began the second half with a 6-0 run and entered the fourth quarter with a 38-26 advantage.
“The fire they’ve had since Day 1 of the tournament is impressive,” White said of his team. “They were determined at the start of the third quarter to come out and solidify this game.”
The 6-foot-3 Lamothe enabled the Vikings to pull away in the final quarter. After Slade swished a 3-pointer from the right side, Lemothe scored off a pair of layups, extending Westhill’s lead to 51-32.
“Their physical play bothered us underneath and we weren’t making some of the baskets we made in the other rounds,” Swaller said. “Westhill did a good job of handling our pressure at the end and they did a good job of getting the ball up the court and scoring easy off of it, which hurts you.”
Miller had 10 points, Jeremiah Winchester added seven points and Pennella chipped in six for the Vikings, whose man-to-man defense was sound throughout — as it has been through their winning streak. Plesser and Evan Defonce scored seven points apiece in the loss.