FAIRFIELD — There were 42 seconds remaining tonight when Fairfield Warde boys basketball coach Ryan Swaller removed his remaining starters from what would end up being an 84-72 win over Brien McMahon. There was loud applause in the stands and more importantly huge smiles on Swaller’s players, who after a sluggish beginning used a 26-4 burst to close the first half and break the game open.
After a tumultuous week, tonight was like a reboot for the Mustangs. And Warde 2.0 looked very much like the original version, primed for a run at the school’s first FCIAC championship in the sport.
“We started off a little bit slow and once we got on a run we didn’t look back,” said J.J. Conway, one of the Mustangs’ seniors, who finished with 11 points.
Hours before the game, Swaller put an end to swirling turmoil when he told brothers Giacomo and Antonio Brancato, who left the team a week earlier, reportedly upset about Antonio’s playing time 10 days ago against Trinity Catholic, that they would not be welcomed back.
It was a bold stroke to an unfortunate situation that pleased no one. Swaller did not want to address it after the game — the 32 previous minutes proved that everyone had finally moved on — but the coach in no uncertain terms was sending a message that ultimately this was his team.
“I’m happy with the performance tonight,” Swaller said. “It is important to get into FCIACs. We needed to win tonight. They responded well. They got their butts kicked in the first quarter.”
The Senators (12-5, 8-5 FCIAC), a talented team that had won eight out of its previous nine games, got out to a 19-10 lead, in part due to the inside power of Aaron McKeithan, who scored 11 of his 16 points in the first quarter. Swaller brought in Jaylen Jennett, one of many players whose responsibilities have now expanded, and interior defense was solidified.
Warde (14-3, 10-3), battling for the second seed in the league playoffs, got its transition game going and by halftime had seized control. Marcel Parsons, who has struggled at times in the second halves of games, led Warde with 22 points, 9 after the break. Sean Conway added 17 points and Malcolm Brune, in his second straight strong performance, finished with 13.
Despite the loss of two starters and Stephen Paolini, the sixth man who is also no longer with the team, a lack of depth that once seemed an issue has become a strength as Swaller has been forced to give a greater number of minutes to more players. Defense, an inconsistency, became a strength against the Senators.
“We did what we needed to do defensively in the second quarter to get back in the game and then continued with unselfish passing in our offense to get open shots,” Swaller said. “I couldn’t be happier with our guys.”
The Mustangs went to triple overtime against Trumbull on Friday, fueled by both a battle for first place in the league and wanting to prove that though the players have changed, the goals were unaltered. The latter remains true.
The words were used in a different situation, but one could almost hear Swaller summoning his inner Gene Hackman in the movie Hoosiers and saying, “My team is on the floor.”
The players also seemed to be unshackled from distraction. Asked if he was happy to have closure, J.J. Conway said, “We don’t like to talk about it too much. We’re just moving past it and focusing on winning out the rest of the season and getting ready for FCIACs.”
The Senators received 21 points from Matt St. Louis and 20 from Eric Day. They are currently in a three-way tie for the final three tournament seeds and will still be a dangerous out.
Warde had not practiced since last Wednesday. Players like Brune, Bennett, Jackson Longley, Rashad Butler and Matt Becker will now have a greater say on the Mustangs’ fortunes this winter.
“Surprisingly we’ve jelled quickly,” J.J. Conway said. “Maybe a little more practice will help. We’re coming together right now despite who we lost and we’re ready to go.”