WILTON — An expected track meet devolved into cold shooting and, ultimately, a defensive struggle in tonight’s highly anticipated FCIAC boys basketball semifinal game between Trinity Catholic and Danbury.
The second-seeded Hatters scored barely half as many points as they did in a first-round win, but played with greater poise in the second half and down the stretch to come away with a 43-40 win over the Crusaders and advance to the final for the second time in three years.
“I thought maybe the atmosphere got to us in the first half and we took some bad shots, and the second half we played better offensively, which helped us play better defensively too,” Danbury coach Casey Bock said.
The third-seeded Hatters (19-3) will meet No. 5 Trumbull in Thursday night’s final. The Eagles had to withstand a furious comeback by Norwalk, which cut a 21-point lead down to three, before holding on for an 82-75 win.
While the play wasn’t always pretty, the score remained close in the opening game. Each team led by as many as five points, the Hatters by 38-33 after a runner by Jordon Brown with 5:12 left.
Dimitry Moise scored on a reverse off a pass from Stephon McGill and freshman Akim Joseph completed a 3-point play off a steal to tie the game with 3:47 left.
The score stayed that way until Javon Hernandez made three free throws in just under half a minute to give Danbury a 41-38 lead with 32 seconds left.
Trinity’s Contavio Dutreil answered with two free throws 10 seconds later, but the Hatters were able to pass over a press, leading to an uncontested layup by Cameron Snow to make the score 43-40.
A long 3-point attempt by the third-seeded Crusaders (17-5), who have not won a league title in 10 years, missed the mark.
“Got to hit the shots, got to hit the free throws,” Hernandez said. Being a captain and leader on the team, there is no such thing as pressure. You’ve got to come through.”
Brown and Snow each scored 10 points for Danbury. Hernandez added 9 and Diante Vines 8.
In a strange twist, the Hatters played without their most versatile player, Denali Brown, who was in foul trouble, for much of the second half. Their smaller lineup caused problems for the Crusaders, who turned the ball over 10 times.
Trinity scored four points and committed five turnovers in the third quarter, when Danbury used a 10-0 run to gain a lead it held for most of the remainder of the game.
“I thought the first half we took some quick shots and that led them to getting some easy baskets, and they got a bunch of second shots in the first half,” Bock said. “Our main focus was offensively we were more patient, which cut down on their transition baskets. We were able to get out there and trap a little bit more and were a little bit quicker, and the guys did a good job of rebounding the basketball.”
The Crusaders also had trouble attacking the Hatters’ more methodical defense.
“Our adjustment was to play that 3-2, 2-3 zone because of the height they had,” Hernandez said. “It was going to be a good game. We had to adjust to their height and our offense came off our defense. Once we got up we had to slow it down, let them come to us instead of going after them.”
Dutreil scored 14 points and Moise 11 to pace Trinity.
“I think they came at us a bit with the pressure and we tried to force things once in a while and didn’t make good decisions,” Walsh said. “We battled back and had the score tied with the ball. At the end we had to press them and they got the long pass. It was two teams going at each other, playing hard. We didn’t play well enough, lets put it that way.”
Six days ago Trumbull (17-5) needed a win over Danbury just to qualify for the tournament. Now the teams will meet again, for even higher stakes.
The Eagles held a 53-32 lead over Norwalk midway through the third quarter, working for and converting open shots and utilizing their height advantage.
But the Bears (13-9), who took down top-seeded Ridgefield in the quarterfinals, stormed back behind the play of Tyrique Langley and perimeter shooting by Conner Mastropietro, who scored 9 of his 19 points on 3-point shots in the final quarter, to get within 68-65 with 2 1/2 minutes left.
“You knew (Langley) was going to keep attacking and you knew it was going to be a great second half,” Trumbull coach Buddy Bray said. “I knew that. I had to convince a young team in there of that. They remained focused just long enough. We made some mistakes but I’m very proud of them.”
Chris Brown, whose father was a member of the Eagles’ last league championship team, 35 years ago, scored six straight points, but Norwalk would not go away and was within 76-73 with 25 seconds left.
Mileeq Green, a freshman who missed most of the season after tearing ligaments in his ankle but has become an impact player during the last week and a half, made two free throws and Timmond Williams added another pair to secure the win.
“He plays with a lot of poise and has ice-water in his veins,” said Bray of Green, who finished with 17 points. “He brings a lot of energy.”
Williams finished with 27 points to lead Trumbull, while Brown added 22. Quentar Taylor scored 10 points.
Trumbull needed wins over Bridgeport Central and Danbury last week to avoid having a long break before the state tournament. The Eagles do not have a senior on their roster.
“We found out how to win together. That’s what happened,” Williams said.
Langley scored 21 points to lead Norwalk. Zyaire Sellers added 12 and Xavier Vines scored 9.
Bray has never coached in the league championship during a career that spans nearly three decades.
“We’ve had some real battles with Danbury over the years,” Bray said. “We’re expecting a great final and I hope we have one more good one left in us.”