FAIRFIELD — Saturday night should be one Antonio Brancato remembers for the rest of his life. And the memory will likely remain with him for a long time.
But it will be bittersweet.
Forced into a starring role with his brother and two other Fairfield Warde starters on the bench, Brancato, a sophomore, hit a basket in the closing seconds of regulation and another at the buzzer of the first overtime to rally the fourth-seeded Mustangs against No. 5 Wilton in the quarterfinal round of the FCIAC Tournament.
But the Warriors, once playoff neophytes but now playing in the event for the fourth straight year, showed some veteran resilience, even though many of their players were getting their first significant playoff minutes.
Led by Matt Kronenberg’s career-high 39 points, the Warriors, who after the first quarter never trailed except for twice for a total span of 37 seconds in the first overtime, held on for a pulsating 92-90 double overtime win in one of the most memorable postseason games in league history.
“I lost a few pounds and my heart skipped a few beats,” said Wilton coach Joel Geriak. “When you miss 20-plus free throws it is hard to put a team away. If we make our foul shots we score 100-whatever. That being said the kids didn’t stop. From 1-10 that played, it was a team win.”
Wilton will meet top-seeded Danbury in the semifinals. The Hatters came from behind and defeated No. 8 Fairfield Ludlowe in overtime, 49-48.
In a battle between two evenly matched teams that play similar styles, Wilton (14-7) seemed headed for a much easier night when it took a 66-58 lead on two free throws by Kronenberg with 1:49 left in regulation.
But Warde (12-9), with its star, Giacomo Brancato, and two other starters who average in double figures on the bench, battled back.
Taking advantage of turnovers and missed free throws, the Mustangs positioned themselves to get the ball down by two points. Antonio Brancato then asserted himself, driving to the basket and tying the score at 69-69.
“I definitely knew I had to take some kind of a scoring role to help us fight back,” Antonio Brancato said. “I know I am capable of doing it. There are games where I have played really well but today was the highlight of my year. I come off the bench.”
Wilton took an 80-76 lead on a 3-point shot by Nick Kronenberg with 41 seconds left in the first overtime, but again Antonio Brancato took over, making two free throws and scoring on another drive at the buzzer to tie the game at 81-81 and force a second overtime.
“A game like that, he wanted the ball in his hands and he’s fearless,” Warde coach Ryan Swaller said. “Next guy up.”
Antonio Brancato finished with 24 points, four more than his younger brother.
“I think we did every thing we needed to do,” Swaller said. “We couldn’t get that extra basket, that little separation to put pressure on them.”
Kronenberg scored 20 of his points from the foul line, but he missed six in the two overtime periods.
“That was definitely the best game I’ve ever played in, in my life,” Kronenberg said. “We just got to be able to close out games.”
Speaking of Antonio Brancato, Kronenberg added, “Those were some really clutch plays. I have to make my free throws so we don’t have to be in that situation. Stiff rims means my legs were gone. I started cramping up at the end but I battled through it and my teammates picked me up in the end.”
Warde’s dramatics overshadowed the Warriors’ steely resolve. Jack Williams and Drew Connolly added 14 points apiece and James Maloney finished with 11.
“Have I played in games like this, yes. Do I like them, no,” Geriak said. “I thought my kids showed a lot to keep it together.”
In one of the wildest opening days in FCIAC Tournament history, the Hatters (19-2) were the third team that needed overtime to advance.
They also became the latest in a long line of top seeds to barely escape in the quarterfinals.
Danbury overcame a nine-point deficit in the third quarter and then went back and forth with the Falcons (12-9) in the final period, taking a 46-45 lead with 55 seconds left after Messiah Crandall’s steal resulted in a layup by Judah James.
Aidan Kudzy made one of two free throws with 43 seconds for a 46-46 tie and both teams missed game-winning attempts.
Scott Nesbitt did all of Danbury’s scoring in overtime, making a free throw and then, after a short jumper by Ludlowe’s Greg Lawrence, scoring off a scramble with 23 seconds left for the winning points.
“We found a way,” Danbury coach Casey Bock said. “I don’t think we played really well. It’s a tribute to Ludlowe with their size. They are a tough No. 8 team there. We got lucky a little bit and got out of here with a win.”
Marcus Fox, the Hatters’ outstanding center, finished with 20 points. James added 13 and Nesbitt finished with 11.
Kudzy scored 17 points for Ludlowe. Cole Prowitt-Smith, Thomas Duffy and Lawrence added 7 each.
“I think the kids just kept fighting,” Bock said. “We got them to turn the ball over and finally made some plays. We did some things out of character. We have to make sure we get back to basics and playing the way we are capable of playing.”