TRUMBULL — A palpable look of relief settled on the faces of Buddy Bray and his Trumbull High School boys basketball players as the final horn sounded Friday night. The Eagles led Fairfield Ludlowe by as many as 15 points in the fourth quarter, the latest with just over 5 1/2 minutes remaining, and then tried their best to give the game away before walking away with a 53-51 win. Fittingly on this sloppy night, Trumbull called a timeout with 13 seconds left after the Falcons’ Tom Duffy hit a long 3-point shot.
Trumbull turned the ball over on the inbounds, but a Ludlowe player was called for traveling on a shot that ended up missing its mark anyway.
To say the Eagles (7-1, 4-0) nearly snatched defeat from victory somewhat minimilizes a strong rally by Ludlowe, but truth be told with smarter play and better execution the heartbeat rates would have been drastically reduced in the final seconds.
If this were baseball, we would be talking about how Trumbull is in need of a 9th-inning closer. Right now it has to do the job in the fourth quarter to grab a brass ring that very well could be within reach.
“Too interesting,” said Chris Lyons, a senior who was part of a balanced attack. “We didn’t close out against Warde and we didn’t close out against Ludlowe. We were able to finish it but it was too close. That’s what we have to work on.”
This could have been a disastrous week for the Eagles. Two nights earlier, against Fairfield’s other FCIAC representative, they gave away a double-digit lead against Warde in the second half before escaping with a one-point win. Friday night looked like a reprisal.
“We didn’t play well with the lead again,” Bray said. “We have to learn how to close it out.”
That theme was used repeatedly postgame. Trumbull played poorly in the early going and trailed, 13-6, early in the second quarter of a turnover-filled game. It scored 23 of the next 30 points to go up, 29-20, and after two straight baskets by Ludlowe scored 10 unanswered points for a 39-24 lead late in the third quarter.
Game, set, match? Not this year in the FCIAC, where all teams have flaws and consistency may prove an elusive and fleeting commodity.
Ludlowe coach John Dailey had been hoping for better play of late from his guards, and he got it in the final 10 minutes. Duffy was outstanding, scoring 10 of his game-high 21 points in the last three minutes. Cole Prowitt-Smith (13 points) also hit some big shots.
But the Falcons (4-4, 1-3) have been struggling, and they dug themselves too deep a hole and then missed out on the kind of confidence-building comeback that can alter a season.
There is a lot to like about the Eagles. They have no stars but a number of solid players. Five players scored at least 7 points, led by JJ Pfohl with 12. Jack Moore finished with 10, Lyons had 9 and Ben McCullough 8. There is no one player to key on, and McCullough provides a presence in the paint that most teams lack.
Trumbull’s final eight points came from the foul line, yet it was just 14 of 25 overall. Lyons chastised himself for making just 1 of 6 attempts.
Trumbull struggled before getting hot at the midpoint of last season and then reached the Final Four of the FCIAC Tournament. It wants to make sure to build on this strong start and not suffer through a case of role reversal.
“This is an entirely new group,” Lyons said. “We had a lot of close games and we were able to close them out and that made us a successful team. We are going to have to learn to do it again. It took us a few games last season. We had a rough start.”
The good news is Trumbull is building leads and finding ways to win. For Bray, an underrated coach who doesn’t get a lot of credit or acclaim, it is better to have to teach his players how to play from out front than behind.