New Canaan Saves Best Performance For Last To Win First State Title Since 1962

New Canaan coach Danny Melzer celebrates the state championship with his players. (Gregory Vasil)

UNCASVILLE — When his team fell behind Granby 9-1 in today’s Division IV state championship game, prompting a timeout call, there was no sense of panic by New Canaan coach Danny Melzer or his players. They recalled both their semifinal win as well as the 18 others that brought them to this stage.

“I definitely think nerves played a factor,” Rams forward Matt Brand said. “Such a big arena, such a big court. We had a slow start against St. Joe’s too, but once we get our confidence going we’re a hard team to stop.”

As Granby soon discovered. Summoning all the attributes that had led them to their best season in three decades, only at a higher level, the Rams exploded and rolled to a 55-39 win at Mohegan Sun.

Alex Gibbens led the Rams’ balanced attack with 13 points. (Gregory Vasil)

“Our gameplan was to wear them down throughout the game,” Melzer said. “I thought we had more depth than they did and in the third quarter we turned up our pressure and got them to play a little faster than they wanted to play. We got out on transition, where we’re at our best. We extended the lead to where we could protect the lead and play good defense. A great team win.”

To secure their first state title since 1962, the fourth-seeded Rams went ahead on two 3-point shots by Ben Sarda and another by Alex Gibbens to open the second quarter.

New Canaan (20-5) built on a 26-21 halftime lead with an 18-4 run in what was arguably its best quarter of the season.

The Rams’ Matt Brand scores on an uncontested layup. (Gregory Vasil)

“Offense was our key tonight,” Brand said. “Throughout this whole tournament and the rest of the season our defense has been great and our defense was great again tonight, holding them under 40, but I definitely thought our ball movement confused them and was a key for us.”

The Rams forced nine turnovers in the third quarter — 22 for the game — and six of their seven field goals were assisted.

As has been the case all year, the scoring was balanced. Gibbens, the junior who never wavered after going from being a starter to sixth man at midseason, was a perfect 5 for 5 from the field and finished with 13 points.

New Canaan’s Luke Rwambuya drives to the basket. (Gregory Vasil)

“We like to wear down other teams by moving the ball and getting the best shot possible and we did that today,” Gibbens said. “I felt like I was getting my shots and luckily they went in.”

Brand added 12 points and Ryan McAleer ended up with 11. Sarda scored eight points.

We’re an extremely unselfish team,” Melzer said. “We share the ball really well, we make the extra pass, we’re a very good cutting team, which is an underrated skill in 2019. That’s how we’ve been all year and today was no different.”

Rowan Heinze scored 13 points for the third-seeded Bears (20-4).

Once the Rams got the lead, they methodically ran their offense until finding either an open shot on the perimeter or a player alone in the paint. That happened often.

The Rams’ Ben Sarda is fouled while scoring on a layup. (Gregory Vasil)

And the defense was relentless.

“This was one of our best because they have one thing that really presents a matchup problem and that’s size,” Melzer. “And not just tall kids but big, strong tall kids. They tried to post us a little bit, they got us once or twice but for the most part we did a good job controlling the post. Excellent defensive effort. That’s been our MO all year.”

A team hoping to qualify for both the league and state playoffs, not modest goals given recent history, far exceeded expectations.

The Rams rush the court after winning the state title. (Gregory Vasil)

“I don’t know if it has sunk in yet,” Brand said. “I love this team. It is unbelievable.”

The Rams galvanized their community. The fan section grew with each win, with a number of football players, accustomed to being the subject of adulation, the biggest cheerleaders.

And Melzer, who has quickly brought the sport respect in New Canaan, believes this is sustainable.

“I hope so. I’ve been saying all year this is not a one and done,” Melzer said. “We have a lot of young talent. Hopefully we can continue the success and be back here again next year.”

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