New Canaan Pulls Away Late To Defeat St. Joseph And Reach First State Final In 30 Years

New Canaan’s Matt Brand scores on a lob pass. (Gregory Vasil)

FAIRFIELD — A season that started with the high hopes of qualifying for a pair of postseason tournaments — not inconsequential given it hadn’t happened in 11 years — and has continually exceeded expectations will now end for the New Canaan boys basketball team at Mohegan Sun.

A 10-3 run to open the fourth quarter carried the Rams to a 62-51 win over St. Joseph tonight in the semifinal round of the Division IV Tournament at Fairfield Warde.

New Canaan in the state final? The last time was 1989.

“Coming into the year I knew we were going to be good but I honestly didn’t expect us to be here given our past record,” said Ryan McAleer, who finished with seven points and along with Luke Rwambuya did a masterful job finding teammates for open looks. “In past years we’d seem so close but couldn’t get the job done. There is something about this team that is special.”

Jack Richardson of New Canaan gets an uncontested basket in the paint. (Gregory Vasil)

The Rams (19-5), who after finishing with the fourth-best record were eliminated in the first round of the FCIAC Tournament, have rebounded and will face Granby for the title either Saturday or Sunday.

Asked if he thought three months ago playing on the final weekend was a viable hope, Matt Brand said, “Honestly at the beginning of the season I wasn’t sure, but as soon as the season started and I saw the group of guys we had and the chemistry we started to build, absolutely. It is a very special team that we have here. We never set our goals too high and we take it next game at a time.”

Brand was sensational, finishing with 21 points. Alex Gibbens added 16, on five 3-pointers.

Gibbens is one of the many players who serve as a microcosm of what has made the Rams special. The highest profile member of the team at the start of the season, he got off to a slow start and saw his role shifted from starter to sixth man. Gibbens never sulked, continued to make significant contributions and stepped up tonight to help carry the offense.

St. Joseph’s Stephen Paolini drives to the basket. (Gregory Vasil)

“Multiple contributions from multiple guys like it has been all year,” New Canaan coach Danny Melzer said. “We’ve got one more to go.”

The fourth-seeded Rams had a 37-29 lead with 3 1/2 minutes left in the third quarter, but the Cadets closed with a 7-0 run to draw within a point.

“I should have called timeout in the third quarter, I almost did, I didn’t, stupid,” Melzer said. “I told my guys at the end of the third quarter that basketball is a game of runs. Right now they’re on one. We’re still winning. We’re still going to win the game. Our guys believed in that and they responded incredibly in the fourth quarter.”

Jack Richardson finished off a feed from Gibbens, who then added a free throw. Gibbens answered a 3-point shot by St. Joseph’s Brendan Kade with one of his own. Two more baskets gave the Rams a 47-39 lead.

St. Joseph (14-11), the No. 17 seed, never scored on consecutive possessions the rest of the way.

New Canaan’s Matt Brand blocks a shot by the Cadets’ Glenn Manigault. (Mark Conrad)

“Our defense was key,” Brand said. “The one thing about this team that is so special is we have learned how to finish games. That is something we struggled with last year, blowing some leads. This year we’ve been able to hold onto some leads and even extend them. That’s been huge for us.”

Steve Paolini led the Cadets with 17 points and Kade finished with 12.

There was little tonight that deviated from what had carried the Rams from the precipice of the championship game. Each basket was connected to the play preceding it. Brand’s emphatic third quarter dunk was the result of Stephen Wronski outhustling everyone for an offensive rebound. Brand’s second-half baskets in the paint came off of great entry looks.

St. Joseph’s Dan Tobin blocks a shot by New Canaan’s Stephen Wronski. (Gregory Vasil)

If there was a standout of note it was Rwambuya, who held Paolini scoreless in the final period.

“Paolini killed us the first three quarters,” Melzer said. “In the fourth quarter we shut him down and it was all Luke. It was Luke versus him one on one and Luke really stepped up for us.”

And now a season of excesses gets an ultimate final one.

“It’s been unreal,” McAleer said. “It is such a journey. These are my brothers, I love them. Every single game someone steps up. It is so much fun to play with these guys every single night.”

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