NORWALK — Norwalk and Bridgeport Central produced enough pronounced changes in momentum, fueled by defensive effort and capriciousness handling the ball, during tonight’s game to cause permanent whiplash.
The Bears built a 25-8 lead after the first quarter — and lost it in just under 5 1/2 minutes.
The Hilltoppers bent but managed to play from ahead until the final 90 seconds, when a game begging for a leader finally saw one emerge.
Tyrique Langley scored the Bears’ final eight points to help them close on a 10-1 run and come away with a frenetic 70-67 win.
“It was crunch time so coach and my teammates said go get the ball and do what you’ve got to do,” said Langley, who finished with 27 points. “I got the ball, went to the rack, knocked my free throws down.”
Norwalk improved to 5-4 over all and 4-2 in the league — and like the Hilltoppers looked like potential contenders in some stretches and longshot qualifiers in others.
“We certainly didn’t play a complete game tonight,” Norwalk coach Tom Keyes said. “We made mistakes. We made more mistakes on top of that and then we challenged the kids not to quit. This group has shown me that they don’t quit. They’re going to keep playing. That’s what we need. Maybe that’s the recipe to being a good team. Just constantly playing hard, believing in yourself, believing in your teammates and at the end of the game Langely made some great plays down the stretch there and we were fortunate to come out with a win.”
Joey Benincaso scored 17 points for Norwalk, while Izaiah Lopez added 9.
The Bears could not have jumped out to a better start, opening the game by scoring the first eight points and ending the quarter on a 14-2 run.
Central coach Barry McLeod opted not to call any timeouts but gave his players a rather impassioned lecture during the break.
Moments later, a team that looked like it had never played defense suddenly mastered it, causing repeated turnovers and turning them into easy baskets. A putback by the Hilltoppers’ Raj Walker tied the game at 30-30 with 2:33 left in the half and 90 seconds later he turned another steal into an uncontested basked for a 34-32 lead at the break.
“I don’t know what to tell you. The team in the first quarter, I don’t know what team that was,” McLeod said. “It was pathetic. There was no energy. It was just inexcusable.”
The Hilltoppers (6-3, 6-2) saw their lead grow to as many as nine points in the third quarter, had it trimmed to one several times but never relinquished it until a steal led to a three-point play by Langley with 52 seconds left.
The Hilltoppers never regained it, though after Langley missed the second of two free throws with five seconds left Zack Williams had a chance to tie the game, but his long shot missed.
“Those steals, we were losing and I had to put pressure on them and then attack the basket and score,” Langley said. “Every time we get a big lead we stop playing hard. We have to keep working on that so we keep pushing and don’t stop.”
Ra’Quan Riley finished with 25 points for Central. Walker added 17.
The Hilltoppers got to the free throw line but were 9 of 15 in the fourth quarter.
“It’s embarrassing,” McLeod said. “We didn’t deserve to win, missing foul shots, senior guys making those mistakes. They got what they deserved. It has happened once or twice. I don’t know if they will learn from it. Foul shots in the last quarter. It’s disgraceful. We need leadership. We don’t have leadership. Kids have been out there for four years but we’re not making progress.”
Keyes said maturity is what carried his player over the finish line.
“We do have some leadership on this team in terms of playing in big spots and so far this season Tyrique has stepped up for us in a lot of big spots,” Keyes said. “His teammates put him in spots to make plays and he did it.”