NEW CANAAN — Danny Melzer has been trying to change the basketball culture at New Canaan in his two-plus seasons, but a signature win that could catapult the program had proved maddeningly beyond reach.
There have been near-misses but no bull’s-eyes.
That may have changed last night, in the most dramatic of manners. The Rams were tied with Stamford, 49-49. There was nine-tenths of a second left. The Black Knights’ Manny Azolin, inbounding the ball underneath his basket, ran the baseline and threw a long pass that was intercepted by Ryan McAleer, who released a shot from midcourt as soon as he caught it. The ball banked in, giving the Rams an improbable 52-49 win.
New Canaan (6-2, 3-2 FCIAC) ended the game by scoring the last eight points, six in the final second. The Rams now have one more win than all of last year and are on the verge of reaching the state tournament for the first time since finishing 10-10 in 2009. They are prominent in the league playoff race.
“I just saw him loft the ball up,” McAleer said of the final play. “I knew I had it. I stole it, shot it and as soon as it left my hand it felt good. I’m surprised I got the shot off.”
McAleer quickly bumped Aaron Fishman out of the spotlight. Fishman made three free throws with 0.9 left to tie the game.
“We defended their out of bounce play well,” Melzer said. “McAleer was in the right position and wow. I’ve been on the other end. Maybe not that dramatic but I’ve never won on a buzzer beater. Especially against Stamford High.”
Melzer played for and coached at Stamford, and tonight’s game, with a number of alumni from the school in attendance, seemed more like the scene in Kuczo Gymnasium from a decade back.
The Rams, who trailed by as many as 10 points early in the third quarter, chipped away and tied the game at 44-44 on a Matt Brand putback with 5:11 left.
The Black Knights (3-4, 1-3) forced three turnovers and scored five straight points, taking a 49-44 lead on a basket by Azolin off an offensive rebound with 1:10 remaining.
Jack Richardson scored off an inbounds play, then Stamford twice missed the front end of one-and-ones and fouled Fishman as he attempted a game-tying shot from the corner during a frantic finish.
Melzer in practices often has a player attempt a free throw. If it is missed, the team runs. Fishman is the player most requested by his teammates to take the shot.
“His three free throws were big time,” Melzer said. “He barely played in the game. We couldn’t ask for a better guy on the line in that situation.”
Brand led a balanced attack with 14 points for New Canaan. Richardson finished with 12, Ben Sarda had 10 and Alex Gibbens scored 9.
It was a painful loss for the Black Knights, who were a top three pick in the league by many. They have struggled defensively but were much improved save for a few lapses when the Rams were able to get the ball inside for some easy baskets during their comeback.
“We did everything that we worked on, we were well prepared,” Stamford coach Zach Smith said. “I thought that was our best game on defense by far. I don’t want to say we gave them the game. There’s nothing you can do about the shot. We will learn from our mistakes. This was our best game effort wise. We just have to take the positives and move forward, but this will be hard.”
Azolin scored 16 points to lead the Black Knights. Jaden Bell and Jose Oliva added 9 each.
Melzer was overcome by the confluence of events: the win, how it occurred and who it came against.
And what it might mean.
“They defended us extremely well,” Melzer said. “They took us out of basically everything we wanted to do. We caught some breaks tonight. It seems since I’ve been here we haven’t caught any breaks. We’ve had injuries, we’ve had bad bounces, balls rim in and out. Tonight we caught some breaks. We were down the whole game and we never gave up, never packed it in. We scratched and clawed and we got stops when we needed to get stops.”
The Rams are starting to get some lift from their early success, and the rest of the league is taking notice.
“There’s so much more energy in the gym,” McAleer said. “Everyone is just playing with a lot of passion. Everyone is trusting each other and it is leading to wins. We’ve underachieved the last two years and everything is just clicking. We are putting the FCIAC on notice.”