In a top-heavy season where five schools entered this week’s FCIAC Tournament with reasonable hopes of winning the title, form has surprisingly held true.
The higher seed has won every game. On Friday night, top-seeded Fairfield Warde and No. 2 Stamford will play for the championship. It is a rematch of the 2009 final, won by the Mustangs, and the last time both schools advanced to the league’s marquee night.
More surprising has been the stunning lack of drama so far. Warde’s 51-49 semifinal win over Ridgefield has been the lone competitive game. The average margin of victory in the other five: 19 points.
Many were excited for the quarterfinal between Ridgefield and Greenwich, a rematch of last year’s final. Instead, the Tigers played perhaps the best half by any team this season to jump out to a large early lead and rolled to a 26-point win, the biggest blowout so far in the tournament.
The league has high hopes of a strong performance in the state tournaments, but before sending its teams off could really use Warde and Stamford to provide some suspense Friday night.
On paper, there is every reason for optimism. The Black Knights handed Warde its lone league loss 12 days ago, 59-51, its first since opening night against Norwich Free Academy.
Stamford comes in as the FCIAC’s hottest team, 15-1 in its last 16 games. During recent weeks it has shed the label that it could not win the big game and was solely dependent on Tiana England. The basis for the former were both a 23-point defeat to Ridgefield that was remarkably similar to the Tigers’ win over Greenwich, and a loss to the Cardinals.
Those were the two most difficult games on Stamford’s schedule until the final week of the season, when it first beat Warde, then ended with a win over Trumbull in a game that broke a tie for the second seed.
The Black Knights have followed up on their fine play this week, demonstrating their versatility in the process. It is impossible to overstate the importance of England, the league’s best player, who can change the flow of the game in an instant. She scored 19 points in the semifinal win over Trumbull, but was just as important both penetrating to create open outside looks for her teammates and controlling the tempo in the final minutes.
The beneficiary on Wednesday was Camille Martinez, who made seven 3-point shots and scored 25 points. Alexa Kellner added 12 points and is another weapon that Warde will have to account for in the rematch.
The Mustangs’ challenge will be to contain England while doing a good job defending the perimeter. Accomplishing the first task will maximize the chances with the second.
Not that Warde doesn’t create a number of problems for Stamford. The Mustangs have a balanced attack and can score in a variety of manners. Shania Osborne inside is the biggest threat, but Iliana Krasniqi can spread defenses and has a nice midrange shot.
The trump card is Lejla Markovic, who stepped up against Ridgefield with a game-high 16 points and was equally effective on the defensive end. Warde could use another similar offensive effort from Markovic because of the loss of the team’s other senior starter, Sarah Cotto, who sustained a concussion in the quarterfinal win over Norwalk and is not due back until next week.
Because of the absurd scheduling by the CIAC — a major rant for another day — either Stamford or Warde will have little time to celebrate a championship. And Stamford’s last one came in 1979. Both schools will have to bounce back and play their first state tournament games on Saturday.
It will be a difficult task, and one that the two coaches — Warde’s Dave Danko and Stamford’s Diane Burns — have no about already prepared for.
But right now the focus is on the FCIAC title. No matter who wins, hopefully the two will put on a memorable show that gives the conference the much-needed climax it deserves.