With double OT win, Ridgefield heads to first FCIAC final

It took four quarters and then some, but for the first time in school history the Ridgefield High boys basketball team is headed to the FCIAC championship game.

In front of a packed gymnasium at Fairfield Warde High School Tuesday night, third-seed Ridgefield and seventh-seed Danbury treated everyone to a double-overtime classic. The Tigers, who won their quarterfinal game against Warde last Saturday on a buzzer-beater, used a little more theatrics at the end of regulation and into overtime to come away with a 67-63 triumph.

Ridgefield (16-6) will now play another team seeking its first conference title: Arch-rival Wilton, which upended top-seed Trumbull, 72-66, in the second semifinal Tuesday. The championship contest is Thursday at 7 p.m. inside Fairfield University's Alumni Hall.

If you ask Ridgefield head coach Andrew McClellan about his senior point guard, Zach Esemplare, he'll tell you that Esemplare is an old-school type of player. Known more for his ball-handling abilities and pass-first mentality, Esemplare tends to let the other big guns on the squad handle the scoring. But with offensive weapons Chris Longo and Nick Laudati having fouled out late in the fourth period, Esemplare stepped up.

"He doesn't like to shoot," said McClellan, with a smile, about Esemplare after the game. "But he can shoot."

And it's because of Esemplare's clutch shooting that the Tigers will play for a first-ever FCIAC title.

Down by five, 45-40, with 54 seconds remaining in regulation, it looked as if Ridgefield was headed for a loss. After clutch free throws by Laudati and a layup by Brenden McNamara, the Tigers put themselves in position for one last chance to tie the game with 3.6 seconds remaining.

Joe Newborn inbounded the ball to Esemplare, who came sprinting around a pick set by McNamara. Esemplare dribbled up the court, hesitated for a split-second to shake his defender, and then put up a three-pointer from the left side as time expired. The ball clanged in, sending the game into overtime tied at 48.

"I literally heaved it up there, and the next thing I know, my whole team is on me. I couldn't believe it," Esemplare said.

With new life, the Tigers seemed poise to seize momentum and steal a victory in the extra period. Ahead 55-54 with 46 seconds remaining, Newborn headed to the line after getting intentionally fouled. He missed both free throws, and Danbury came down and made a layup to go in front, 56-55.

After a jump-ball, which awarded possession to Danbury, the Tigers intentionally fouled Chris Torres to stop the clock. Torres made one free throw to give the Hatters a 57-55 advantage with 13 seconds left. Ridgefield raced down the court, and Esemplare supplied some more magic.

"I saw a big lane and then all of a sudden I saw [Danbury's 6'4"] Marcus Fox, one of the biggest kids in the FCIAC, coming at me and I just kind of double-clutched it ..." said Esemplare of his game-tying layup. "I couldn't believe we tied it up again. I thought we blew it again."

In the second overtime, Ridgefield used clutch late free throws to seal the victory. Esemplare went five-of-six from the line over the final 50 seconds to help secure the 67-63 triumph.

"Just tons of heart and guts and toughness in that locker room," said McClellan about his players.

The Tigers played tentatively in the first half, though, and trailed 20-17 going into the break. Entering the fourth period, however, they held a 34-33 advantage.

"I was disappointed at the way we approached the first half. I thought we played hurried and not together and sort of frantic," said McClellan. "I thought in the second half we settled down a little bit more. The refs let a lot go; it was a really physical game. We played with a lot of toughness down the stretch."

McClellan and his team will now turn their focus to fifth-seed Wilton.

"We're going to show up on Thursday night and try to figure out a way to get ahead before the [final] buzzer," said McClellan.

McNamara finished with 23 points points to lead Ridgefield. Esemplare added 16 points, while Laudati contributed 13 points and Newborn chipped in with seven points. Longo was limited to two points before fouling out early in the fourth quarter.