WILTON — After losing at Trumbull during the regular season on a 30-foot bank shot at the buzzer, the Ridgefield boys basketball team was leaving nothing to chance in tonight’s FCIAC Tournament semifinals.
Playing with poise and a lead for all but 48 seconds, the fifth-seeded Tigers took down the top-seeded Eagles, 73-66, behind a stifling defensive effort.
“I thought the boys really played confidently, that was a big thing,” Ridgefield coach Andrew McClellan said. “On a big stage I thought if we played confidently we’d be fine. We felt good coming off the game we played against them at their place. We were really sharp from the beginning, lost our poise for a little bit down the stretch and then we got it again.”
Ridgefield (16-6), which won the title two seasons ago, will meet last year’s champion, Danbury, in the final on Thursday night. The Hatters rode 16 unanswered first-quarter points for an emphatic 68-48 win over Wilton.
The Tigers led by as many as 16 points in the fourth quarter, but Trumbull (18-4), which lost in the final a year ago, got within 64-60 on Quentar Taylor’s 3-point play with 2:14 left.
Then Chris Knachel, who had one of the biggest nights of his career, at both ends of the floor, scored on a drive to steady his team, which scored the final five points.
“He’s sort of a jack of all trades for us and he really stepped up tonight,” McClellan said of Knachel.
James St. Pierre scored 23 points to lead Ridgefield, while Knachel added 20. Matt DeLuca finished with 14.
The Tigers led by 13 points late in the first half before Trumbull cut the deficit to eight. Memories of Timmond Williams’ wild shot to wrest victory from defeat for Trumbull during the teams’ meeting in early January was on McClellan’s mind.
“We talked about that at halftime,” McClellan said. “I thought we outplayed them for the first 14 minutes of that half and we were up 12 or 13 and then we left some meat on the bone by not playing smart. I said whatever we do in the second half, don’t give him a chance because he’s a gamer. We didn’t want to give him or (Chris) Brown a chance.”
The Tigers are noted for their defense but St. Pierre is usually thought of strictly by what he does with the ball in his hands. Guarding Williams, who scored 40 points in a quarterfinal win over St. Joseph, most of the night, St. Pierre held the Trumbull star to just three field goals and 17 points. Williams fouled out with 1:45 left.
“I shouldn’t say it’s not debatable but he has had a ridiculous season,” McClellan said of St. Pierre’s candidacy for Player of the Year. “This has been a great stage for him to sort of show people that think he only shoots or scores. And then the rest of our cast really pitched in tonight.”
Knachel drew Brown and held him to 14. Mileeq Green also finished with 14 for Trumbull.
“The defense was tremendous on Williams and Brown, who are amazing players,” McClellan said.
In tonight’s opener, played before a sellout crowd at the Zeoli Field House made up mostly of Wilton fans, the Warriors’ Andrew Smith opened the scoring with a 3-point shot 80 seconds into the game.
By the time Smith scored his second field goal, the Hatters had run off 16 straight points and nearly 6 1/2 minutes had elapsed on the clock. Danbury led, 16-5.
“These seniors know what’s at stake and they did a great job on the defensive end and that carried us the whole time,” Danbury coach Casey Bock said.
The second-seeded Hatters (16-6) took a 29-9 advantage late in the half and No. 2 Wilton (17-5) got no closer than 16 points, with just over six minutes remaining, the rest of the night.
Danbury scored inside, outside and most of all in transition. Hernandez was the catalyst on the break, along with Burton and Keyon Moore.
Wilton, in contrast, missed 3-point shots from the outset and, more costly, a number of layups in the first quarter. The Warriors struggled from the foul line, making just 18 of 29 shots.
Wilton coach Joel Geriak thought his team would have success with the press, but with so many errant attempts there were few opportunities. And a large Wilton student section was silenced from the outset.
“Javon had a great floor game and you have Javon and Keyon handling the ball and a guy like Denali in the middle it’s tough to press us,” Bock said. “We did pretty good in the regular season but our seniors know this is the time we’ll be judged. This is the time they will have to produce and they’re doing a good job of it right now.”
Jah Joyner, having a fantastic tournament off the bench inside for Danbury, finished with 19 points. Hernandez added 17 and Burton finished with 16.
“It’s not our first time in this position and we wanted to get back to the championship,” Burton said.
Andrew Smith finished with 11 points for Wilton, which is 12-0 when scoring over 60 points and now a .500 team when not reaching that mark. Kyle Hyzy added nine points.