Earlier this season, the New Canaan boys basketball team qualified for its first state tournament in 10 years.
On Monday night, the resurgent Rams ended a slightly longer absence.
By playing intense defense, finishing enough elongated possessions with baskets, and making free throws in crunch time, New Canaan knocked off Ridgefield, 60-53. The victory assured the Rams of a berth in the FCIAC tournament for the first time since 2008.
“To come out here on the road, against one of the best teams in the FCIAC, and win this game … it showed me a lot about my guys,” New Canaan coach Danny Melzer said.
The outcome left New Canaan and Ridgefield with matching records both overall (12-5) and in the conference (9-4). If the Tigers had won, they would have secured a spot in the FCIAC playoffs.
“We saw (Ridgefield) basically run St. Joe’s out of the gym (an 88-50 win last Friday), and so a major emphasis of ours tonight was we’re not going to let them beat us down the floor,” Melzer said. “They did on the first play of the game and I was very unhappy, but from that point on we did an excellent job in transition.”
New Canaan recovered from an early 5-0 deficit to go ahead 13-10 at the end of the first quarter. The Rams stayed in front from there, leading 24-19 at halftime and 37-32 through three quarters.
Ridgefield closed within 40-38, but New Canaan preserved its advantage by hitting free throws. With the Rams in the bonus, Jack Richardson, Luke Rwambuya, and Ben Sarda all made both ends of one-and-ones to give the visitors a 48-40 lead with 2:32 left.
A long 3-pointer from James St. Pierre (game-high 28 points) and two free throws from Luke McGarrity brought Ridgefield within 52-47 with 1:15 to go, and Chris Knachel’s basket further whittled New Canaan’s lead to 56-53 with 28 seconds remaining.
But two free throws by Sarda were followed by a Ridgefield turnover, and Rwambuya then sank two more foul shots to close out the victory.
“We went 10 for 21 against Darien (a 54-45 loss last Tuesday) from the free-throw line and I told these guys free throws win and lose games,” Melzer said. “And I think tonight they won the game for us.”
“That’s a hard brand of basketball to play against. It’s not enjoyable; we don’t look forward to playing basketball like that,” Ridgefield coach Andrew McClellan said about New Canaan. “The holding of the ball, the packing it in … but that’s the style they play and they’re good at it. Their kids really did a nice job in all facets of the game.”
Notes: Knachel added 11 points for the Tigers. Johnny Briody had six points, while Matt DeLuca contributed four points and Cameron Andry and McGarrity each had two points.
Sarda finished with 17 points for New Canaan. Rwambuya also reached double figures with 14 points.