FAIRFIELD — It took the New Canaan boys basketball team just 11 games to go where no Rams team has gone in the past 10 years.
Summoning all the qualities — ballhandling, free throw shooting, tempo-setting — that has them off to their best start in recent memory, the Rams trailed for just 36 seconds at the start and pulled away for an impressive 48-38 win tonight at Fairfield Warde.
New Canaan clinched its first state tournament berth in a decade, and needed just the first game of the second half of the regular season to accomplish a feat that had the locker room buzzing afterward.
“It’s very exciting,” said Danny Melzer, the Rams’ third-year coach. “What’s more exciting is to see how happy these guys are because the amount of work they have put in since I got here to improve as much as they have, and to buy in how hard it is to turn a program around, is a credit to them. To see how happy they are in the locker room, that’s what coaching is all about.”
New Canaan took a 5-2 lead on Ben Sarda’s 3-point shot with just under 4 1/2 minutes left in the first quarter and never relinquished it. The Mustangs had possessions within a score and chances to tie the game from the foul line but never got to play with an advantage down the stretch.
The Rams (8-3, 5-3 FCIAC) had a 33-31 lead when Warde’s Matt Becker was fouled with 5:17 remaining. He made the first shot but missed the second.
New Canaan then pulled away by making 11 of 14 free throws down the stretch.
“It feels great. We worked hard for it,” said Alex Gibbens, who was asked to come off the bench for the first time and scored seven points. “We definitely deserve it the way we’ve been working.”
If there was a play that typified the Rams’ play to date, it came with nine seconds left. Though the outcome was decided, point guard Ryan McAleer hustled to get an offensive rebound on a missed foul shot by Luke Rwambuya.
McAleer, whose game-winning halfcourt shot against Stamford earned him national attention, scored the final points. The 10-point margin was also their biggest lead.
“And that is going to be a characteristic of New Canaan basketball forever,” Melzer said when asked about the seemingly innocuous rebound. “We don’t stop playing until the clock says zero.”
On a night when the offenses struggled and the Rams were content to shorten the game — they twice had possessions that lasted over 50 seconds — Jack Richardson scored a team-high 10 points. Six players scored between four and eight points.
“In a state where there is no shot clock, in a game like this, you have to be able to hold onto the ball and you have to make your free throws down the stretch and you have to get stops,” Melzer said. “Those three things will win games. We did all three of those things.”
New Canaan is emerging from its most difficult stretch of the season and has enhanced the resume. The Rams have gone 4-2 over the past six games. The two losses were on the road to Danbury and Trumbull, considered by most the co-favorites for the conference title.
“We have to keep winning games, we have to keep moving forward,” Melzer said.
Warde (6-4, 4-3), which until five days ago had won six of seven, lost for the second straight time.
The Mustangs made 13 3-point shots but lost to Wilton last Thursday because it still missed open looks and had trouble defending the perimeter. Tonight they were better on the defensive end but had no offensive flow.
Warde coach Ryan Swaller started the game with several players whose major contributions had been to the junior varsity team. Nothing worked.
“I have more than enough guys I feel can play at this level,” Swaller said. “Our JVs are playing great now and winning games and a lot of the guys are ready for their parts. We are having trouble scoring. I’m trying to find a couple of good combinations. It is just finding combinations of guys that play well and want to win as a team, offensively and defensively.”
Matt Becker scored 11 points for Warde, which made just two 3-pointers and shot 8-for-17 from the foul line.
“I’m very very proud of how well we played defensively,” Melzer said. “We worked very hard the last two days to go over their stuff and these guys went out there and really executed everything we worked on in practice. They showed a lot of toughness.
“Now that we’ve accomplished the state tournament goal, now we have to turn our focus to the next goal, which is making FCIACs.”