FAIRFIELD — Westhill rolled to the FCIAC boys basketball championship last year by being more talented than its opponents.
In one of the more improbable runs in recent league history, the Vikings won for the second season in a row by playing better than its opponents during the tournament, taking down in order the No. 3 and 2 teams and, on Thursday night, top-seeded Danbury, 72-61.
“We expected it, I don’t know if anyone else did,” said Tyrell Alexander, the Vikings’ best player and team leader, who finished with 21 points and again was an equally dominant presence defensively and on the boards. “We know what we can do. We just used that as motivation.”
The sixth-seeded Vikings (16-7) won for the ninth time in the last 10 games by outplaying the favored Hatters in every manner. Lenold August’s steal and layup with 2:28 left in the opening quarter gave the Vikings a 16-14 lead they would not again relinquish. They exploited Danbury’s weaknesses, mostly on defense, taking the ball to the basket repeatedly for easy layups. They neutralized the Hatters’ strengths, playing them to a standstill on the glass after initially yielding too many second-chance points.
“Our game plan was to box them out because they are tough on the boards. Especially Marcus,” said Alexander, referring to Danbury center Marcus Fox. “We had to worry about him the most.”
If Alexander is Westhill’s marquee player, then Parish Rowell had his coming-out party this past week. A bellwether this season — there was a direct correlation to his point totals and the team’s success — he finished with 19 points, struggling the second half with an injured ankle, and was deservedly named the most valuable player.
“He picked it up,” Westhill coach Howard White said. “I called him over in the fourth quarter and told him he had to step it up. Even though he’s in pain he has to step it up and that’s what he did.”
Rowell demonstrated the Vikings’ prowess on one play and held them together on another sequence.
Late in the first half, the Hatters (20-3) went to a 3-2 zone to try and limit the easy entry to the paint that had allowed Westhill to build up a 13-point lead. The Vikings wisely held the ball until Danbury matched up, at which point Rowell drove past his defender for an easy layup.
“My guards are quick and I thought that was something we had an advantage of,” White said. “We were going to penetrate and attack them like that.”
Of greater importance were consecutive possessions in the fourth quarter. Danbury had finally tapped its athleticism, led by Scott Nesbitt (17 points), forced turnovers and chipped away to get within one point at 53-52 with 7:08 remaining.
But the Hatters never regained the lead. Helped by Danbury going over the foul limit at the start of the quarter, Rowell made two free throws, then following a missed shot again breezed past his man for an easy layup.
“I just wanted to keep attacking, their defense is weak,” Rowell said. “I wanted to score tonight. I wanted the ball, just give me the ball.”
Added Alexander, “They spread it out on us and the lane was open.”
Westhill won in large part because of Alexander and Rowell but there was so much more. Tyler Lasicki made huge contributions handling the ball as his playing time increased late in the season. August and Vashon Natteal were key factors on the boards. Jared Yaghoubian came off the bench and hit a huge 3-pointer during a late first-quarter run. Nate Jefferson and J’Ani Graham had key baskets.
These were not your 7-6, early-February Vikings.
“They all stepped up and they all made things happen,” White said.
White sat on the bench for the third straight game and left the coaching to his assistant, Roberto Nieves, as he continued to deal with a health issue that caused him to be hospitalized eight days earlier following the final regular season game, against Bridgeport Central. Nieves made all the right moves.
“This feels great, I can’t ask for anything better than this, for these kids to step up like this,” White said. “Seeing my medical condition they showed determination and heart. They told me when I was in the hospital they were going to do this for me and I appreciated it and that’s what they did. Roberto did an excellent job while I was sitting on the bench. I truly appreciate that.”
Alexander was not going to compare a first league title, as the favorite, to the second.
“Oh my god, this fells amazing,” Alexander said. “Amazing. The last couple of games we played you could just feel it building.”
Last year it was Jeremiah Livingston’s team. This year, for the regular season, it was Alexander’s.
And for the past six days, it was a true ensemble that allowed the Vikings to win a second straight championship few would have predicted, not a week ago and certainly not a month ago.
“People kept counting us out, saying we couldn’t win without Jeremiah,” Rowell said. “We just kept winning. It feels great.”