In two OTs, Ridgefield wins first-ever FCIAC boys hoop title (updated)

After waiting 45 years to play in their first conference championship game, the Ridgefield and Wilton boys basketball teams didn't want to leave the big stage.

In a double-overtime thriller before a sellout crowd that roared louder than a locomotive, third-seed Ridgefield edged fifth-seed Wilton, 68-64, to win the FCIAC title Thursday night at Fairfield University's Alumni Hall.

"It hasn't settled in yet," said Ridgefield head coach Andrew McClellan after the history-making victory. "But when it does, it's going to be emotional."

For the second straight game, the Tigers came out on top in double overtime. And once again, it was senior point guard Zach Esemplare who came through in the clutch.

Two nights after hitting two huge baskets in a 67-63 semifinal triumph over Danbury, Esemplare put the Tigers ahead to stay Thursday evening when he drove the lane for a layup and was fouled, sinking the free throw to give Ridgefield a 64-62 lead with 20.8 seconds remaining in the second overtime.

Following a Wilton miss, Chris Longo hit two pressure-packed foul shots to extend Ridgefield's advantage to four points. Kyle Shifrin kept Wilton alive by scoring on a put-back with 4.5 seconds remaining, but Longo added two more free throws to close out the Warriors.

"I just had to block everything out and stay mentally tough," said Longo about his late trips to the line. "I had to slow myself down and knock them down."

Led by elusive point guard Matt Kronenberg, who scored a game-high 31 points, Wilton was ahead 15-13 through one quarter, 28-21 at halftime, and 37-33 going into the final period. The margin grew to 40-33 when Kronenberg opened the fourth quarter with a three-pointer.

Ridgefield, however, answered with 14-0 run to go ahead, 47-40, with 1:49 to play. Then it was Wilton's turn to rally. Kronenberg made two free throws to narrow Ridgefield's lead to 49-47, and — following two missed free throws from Brenden McNamara — drove for the basket that knotted the score with 30.1 seconds left.

After calling a timeout with 11.5 seconds remaining, the Tigers were unable to get off a shot, as Wilton's Robbie Hermann came up with a steal before signaling for timeout with 0.5 seconds to go. McNamara intercepted Wilton's long inbounds pass as the buzzer sounded, sending the game to overtime.

Two baskets by McNamara and two free throws from Esemplare put Ridgefield in front, 55-51, with under a minute left in the first overtime. Longo then made one of two foul shots to give the Tigers a 56-53 lead with 18.6 seconds remaining, but Kronenberg dribbled past the Ridgefield defense to hit a layup and draw a foul with 13.3 ticks to go.

His free throw tied the score at 56, and the game went to a second overtime when a driving basket by Ridgefield's Joe Newborn was disallowed by the referees, who ruled that Newborn had not gotten his shot off before the buzzer.

The Warriors took a quick 58-56 lead in the second overtime and were ahead 62-61 with 1:47 remaining. But Esemplare's three-point play got the Tigers back on top, and Longo's free throws kept them there.

"It's what every kid dreams of," said Esemplare amid the post-game celebration. "It's wild. It's the best feeling ever."

"Super proud of them," said McClellan, whose team had to play the second overtime without its leading scorer (McNamara) and top rebounder (6'8" senior center Nick Laudati), who both fouled out in the final minute of the first extra session. "It's a huge accomplishment for Ridgefield. There were 10 times when we could have stopped and quit. They'll remember this the rest of their lives."

"It's the most amazing feeling in the world," said Laudati. "It's going to go down in history as not only the first Ridgefield FCIAC win, but it's going to go down as a Ridgefield FCIAC championship in double overtime against Wilton."

Notes: McNamara led Ridgefield with 18 points and was named the Most Valuable Player.

"After I fouled out, I just felt awful," said McNamara. "I felt like I was letting down all my teammates. But they just picked up the slack. We're FCIAC champions. It's unbelievable."

Longo added 17 points for the Tigers (10 in the overtime periods) and Esemplare had 12 points. Laudati and Newborn each contributed eight points, while freshman Luke McGarrity rounded out the Ridgefield scoring with five points.

Senior guard Drew Connolly had 12 points for Wilton before fouling out.

Wilton senior Jack Williams, one of the team's top players, was limited by a nagging knee injury and scored just two points before leaving the contest in the second half. The Warriors were also without senior defensive stopper Jack Wood (knee injury).

Ridgefield Press Sports Reporter Rich Kaufman contributed to this story.