NEW HAVEN >> After Hillhouse absolutely demoralized Wilbur Cross by 40 points back on Jan. 26, Cross coach Kevin Walton wasn’t sure what to expect next.
What he got was a game group of Governors back at practice the next day, nowhere near ready to write the season off. They have won five of their last seven since, but the team’s most recent loss may have provided as much hope as the five wins did.
“They wanted to be in the gym, wanted to discuss the direction we were going in,” Walton said.
No. 1 ranked and undefeated Notre Dame-West Haven won 65-55 in the regular-season finale for Cross Thursday night. It was the second loss inside of a week to the Green Knights, but the collective effort was inspired, unlike the Hillhouse game.
The rematch was much closer. Notre Dame built a double-digit lead early in the third quarter (34-22), but Cross fought back. Despite missing 10 free throws and several shot attempts to draw even closer, the Governors were able to get as close as four (53-49) in the fourth quarter.
“The effort was there. As long as the effort is there, we will have a chance,” Walton said. “We challenged them, they accepted the challenge. At this point, we will not beat ourselves. Teams will have to beat us.”
Kwane Taylor, Will Antrum and Jaylen Stafford all finished with 12 points to lead Cross.
With that lead at four, Jalanni White missed two free throws for the Green Knights. But Connor Raines grabbed the offensive rebound then, after a missed shot, Michael Brooks grabbed another offensive rebound and he cashed in for the basket. Cross (14-6) never got any closer.
“Tough road wins in this league against a team like Wilbur Cross, you can never minimize how big that is,” Notre Dame coach Jason Shea said.
It was the second straight tough road game for the Green Knights after ascending to the No. 1 ranking for the first time. Notre Dame won by four at Fairfield Prep Tuesday before playing in front of its sixth sellout of the season. It was the first sellout at Cross (approximate 900 capacity) that included Georgetown University head coach John Thompson III.
The biggest reason for such interest in the Green Knights, and the reason why Thompson was there, is senior guard Tremont Waters, who signed a national letter of intent to play for the Hoyas next season.
Waters struggled for one of the rare times this season. The Governors’ defense made the star guard work for his 18 points. But White (15 points, 12 rebounds) was able to find success in the paint.
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“These kids are proud. They’re not going to let someone walk in their gym and do whatever they want to do. They live in this city as well (Waters is a New Haven resident). I like what we are doing now since the last Hillhouse game. Our kids have been focused.”
Said Shea: “We get the No. 1 ranking, then had to go to (Fairfield) Prep and had to go to Cross, two very physical, capable teams. A lot of guys stepped up in those moments and that experience will only help us down the road.”
Notre Dame (19-0) has locked up the No. 1 seed in the SCC tournament and will receive a bye into the quarterfinals. Cross’ seeding is still to be determined, but will host a first-round game next Thursday at 6:30 p.m.
“It’s been a fun learning experience having the No. 1 point guard in Connecticut and a great coach. We’ve been learning a lot,” Notre Dame guard Tim Dawson said.
NOTRE DAME-WEST HAVEN 65, WILBUR CROSS 55
(at New Haven)
Notre Dame 15 11 18 21 – 65
Wilbur Cross 8 14 15 18 – 55
NOTRE DAME-WEST HAVEN (65)
Tremont Waters 5 7-9 18, Tim Dawson 4 0-0 9, Connor Raines 2 10-10 15, Jalanni White 3 0-2 6, Mike Brooks 3 3-5 9, Chuck Dikko 4 0-0 8. Totals: 21 20-26 65
WILBUR CROSS (55)
Kwane Taylor 3 6-9 12, William Antrum 4 3-10 12, Jaykeen Foreman 4 0-0 8, Jayden Valerrama 2 3-3 7, Jaylen Stafford 5 0-0 12, Terrance Edwards 0 0-2 0, Marquay McDuffie 1 2-2 4. Totals: 19 14-26 55
3-point goals: Notre Dame-West Haven 3 (Waters 1, Dawson 1, Raines 1); Wilbur Cross 3 (Antrum 1, Stafford 2); Records: Notre Dame-West Haven 19-0; Wilbur Cross 14-6
Notes: White with 10 rebounds.