WILTON — The Wilton boys basketball team was not lacking for motivation prior to tonight’s Division II Tournament opener against Norwalk.
The Warriors lost a tiebreaker to the Bears for the final spot in the FCIAC playoffs, which meant they have sat around for the past two weeks, and were spectators when the final two rounds were played on their home court.
It was the Bears’ regular-season win at Wilton that earned them the final playoff spot, and Warriors coach Joel Geriak said that provided further incentive.
With that backdrop, after a slow start the Warriors used a 12-2 run late in the first half and maintained it the rest of the way to defeat Norwalk 74-53.
“We were flat the first few minutes but after that we came out and really found our groove,” said Wilton guard Scott Cunningham. “We’ve been working a lot on pushing pace and that’s what we did today. We got a ton of points and we played our tempo, which we haven’t been doing enough this season.”
The 13th-seeded Warriors (14-7) will travel to take on No. 4 Bristol Central in Thursday’s second round.
Kyle Maatallah led a balanced attack with 20 points, including five of the team’s 11 3-point shots. Antonio Brancato added 17 points and Cunningham finished with 16 as the seniors led the way in what might have been their final home game of the year.
“Being off two weeks didn’t help,” Geriak said. “Honestly it was following the gameplan, trusting each other and doing what we usually do. We haven’t had that feeling in a while and today was one of our most complete games of the season, top to bottom.”
Norwalk defeated Wilton in the first game of the calendar year, and while that outcome would have great impact, Geriak said it has lingered for other reasons.
“The last time they were here they left a bad taste in our mouths,” Geriak said. “They celebrated on the floor, got carried off the floor, the coach was running around a little bit. That was in their minds the whole time. It wasn’t revenge but they beat us here by two. It wasn’t forgotten by the kids, lets put it that way.”
Norwalk was the stronger team for the first few minutes, but was unable to sustain its execution.
“They stuck in that zone and we had trouble moving the ball a little bit,” Norwalk coach Tom Keyes said. “They got back on defense, which took us out of our opportunities on transition. Joel had a great gameplan and I didn’t think we were terrible today. I thought Wilton played very well. Hats off to them, they beat us.”
Zyaire Sellers scored 20 of his 21 points in the second half, but that was eight more than the combined output of his teammates as he had to carry the offense. Joey Benincaso finished with 11 points — all in the first half.
“We’ve been sitting around,” Cunningham said. “We didn’t make FCIACs and that was tough. We worked on things we wouldn’t have been able to work on if we were getting ready for a game. We wanted to be ready when we got back out there.”
The score was tied at 15-15 when Kyle Hyzy’s putback started the pivotal spurt. Maatallah hit back to back 3s and scored 8 straight points, and Nick Kronenberg banked in a 3-point shot at the buzzer for a 31-21 halftime lead.
Many of the field goals by Cunningham and Maatallah came off assists from the other.
“They trust each other,” Geriak said. “Even our bigs, we didn’t score off of them but inside-out we passed a lot and we made the extra pass and when we do that we’re a good team.”
The Warriors are hoping their strength of schedule will prove beneficial going forward.
“Just survive and advance right now,” Geriak said. “That’s all it is. We will put a gameplan together and hopefully stick to it. It was great to see them in maybe their last home game come out with a nice win. It was nice to see them play like the Wilton we know and love.”
The Bears finished the season 13-10. They had one of the biggest wins of the season with an upset of top-seeded Ridgefield in the FCIAC Tournament quarterfinals.
“We had a tough first-round matchup, but if we won more games during the regular season we wouldn’t have had to play Wilton,” Keyes said. “They outplayed us tonight, they deserved to win. In the big picture Norwalk can look back on this season and look at it as a success. Many people outside our locker room didn’t thing we’d be any good. There are a lot of good memories. Unfortunately the state tournament is not going to be one of them.”