WILTON — If you liked the Wilton boys basketball team the last few years, you will continue to love it this winter during the continued run at Zeoli Field House.
Move the ball, find open shots, push the tempo, pressure on defense. It is the same show you’ve grown to love, like a comfortable rerun on a series where cast members move on and are replaced.
Such was the case tonight, as the Warriors tuned up for one of their biggest games of the season with a workmanlike 76-46 win over St. Joseph. The distinguishing feature was a 21-0 run over the final six minutes of the third quarter that showcased the team at its best after a sluggish start.
“The first half they did a good job running the slower offense and we got some pressure in the second half because we want to play faster,” Wilton coach Joel Geriak said. “We got caught literally standing watching them too much. We got stagnant. The first half wasn’t good, the second half we made adjustments, attacked more and played more our style.”
It is hard to think of any team — in any sport — in recent memory that has employed a carbon-copy style with such a remarkably similar roster composition for so long.
“Same goals still, same way to play and we’re just trying to build from last year,” said Kyle Maatallah. “I think we’re actually a better shooting team than last year. We get out in transition, we’re faster and we’re shooting well.”
That was certainly the case during the decisive run. The Warriors (6-2, 4-1) held a 29-21 halftime lead despite flat play in which they moved the ball well but missed open shots. Even the team’s rabid fan base was tranquil.
“We were getting good looks the first half, they just weren’t dropping so we kept shooting and they started to fall in the second half,” Maatallah said matter-of-factly.
That was due in part to the location of those shots. After opening the third quarter with three 3-pointers — there would be 11 in all — the defensive pressure led to steals and baskets in transition. There were five straight layups before Kyle Shfrin ended the period with a putback for a 56-28 advantage.
“We missed a couple. We forced a couple of 30 footers,” Geriak said of the team’s start. “In general in the second half we got to more attacking, went downhill and even against the zone we played better and went inside and kicked it out.”
The Cadets (0-9, 0-7), who have played a number of teams close, were overmatched, despite 20 points from Paul Fabbri and 13 from Gavin Greene.
Wilton again has a number of players capable of leading the team in scoring on any given day. Tonight it was Maatallah, flourishing in an increased role, who finished with 19 points. They were enough to edge out Antonio Brancato, who made a late run and finished with 16, and Scott Cunningham, who ended up with 15 on five 3-pointers.
In a year with few dominant big men, Shifrin and Robbie Hermann are even more effective in the paint and adept keeping the ball moving when collapsed upon.
For someone seeing the Warriors for the first time this season, two differences stood out. Most apparent is the confidence possessed by Cunningham, who seemed tentative a year ago. He is leading the team in scoring and showing the familial touch first displayed by his older sister, Erin, the school’s all-time scoring leader who is now playing at Trinity College.
“He’s put in so much work I can’t even tell you how much he’s done,” Geriak said. “Everything we’ve told him to do, he’s absorbed it like a sponge. He makes sure he gets better at what it is. If you tell him he wasn’t playing good defense today, he’s back in the gym making sure it is fixed for next game. He’s working his tail off and it’s fun to watch him.”
The other is Brancato, the transfer from Fairfield Warde who already looks like a veteran of the Wilton way.
“He’s fit in great,” Geriak said. “It has taken him 10 games or how many games we’ve played to understand the system. It’s a different offense. It took him a little while. You think basketball is that easy, but it’s not.”
Speaking of Warde, that is the Warriors’ destination Thursday night in a big game in a season that so far has had very few of them.
“Warde’s going to be a tough one,” Maatallah said. “We just have to bring it on Thursday. Just keep on playing hard and keep building.”