Two of the hopes for creating a new, five-division CIAC tournament format in boys basketball was giving the smaller public schools a fair opportunity to play for a state championship and to place a group of the state’s more successful programs into the top division.
The format was successful on both fronts: Division V had two public schools compete in the final, while the titans in Division I put together some of the best postseason games in recent memory.
In the end, it was the best player on the state’s only undefeated team who made big play after big play to lead Notre Dame-Fairfield to its first state championship. Senior point guard Tyler Bourne is the Register’s State Player of the Year.
“I would tell my teammates and my coaches all the time to hold me accountable and I would hold them accountable. To me, that was the only way you could be the best team in the state,” Bourne said. “Being the leader means to me that everybody has to trust you, believe what you say and it’s not just in one ear and out the other. And sometimes, you have to show it, too.”
Oh yes, Bourne showed it. He averaged 16.4 points and 6.7 assists per game to lead Notre Dame to the South-West Conference regular season and tournament titles. The senior averaged over 25 ppg. In the four games in the state tournament.
“Tyler had probably one of the best runs in a tournament by any player in Connecticut history,” Notre Dame coach Chris Watts said.
Bourne scored 30 points, along with seven assists, in the final in a mano-e-mano duel with Sacred Heart’s Raheem Solomon, who finished with 33. Notre Dame defeated Sacred Heart, the third straight season the two teams battled in a state final.
“He didn’t want to lose his last game. I didn’t want to lose my last game,” Bourne said about his matchup with Solomon. “We knew we were returning most of our scorers and our best players were coming back. I’m not at all surprised. Coach Watts, we really preached that every day in practice. Honestly, the whole team took it as a challenge. We knew Notre Dame had never won a state championship before. So why not go undefeated? What made it extra special was we didn’t lose a game.”
Notre Dame finished 27-0, the state’s only undefeated team, and the unanimous choice for No. 1 in the final Register/GameTimeCT poll.
“To go undefeated was not the focus. However, ‘staying where your sneakers are’ was the focus,” Watts said. “We challenged everyone to live in the present, not the past or future. My guys believed this, and that motivated them. They understood we cannot get back the past, and the tomorrow is not promised. … Going there (to the finals) four times and failing all four was not an option for Tyler and our seniors.”
Bourne transferred in from Coney Island before the start of the 2016-17 season. The 5-foot-8 point guard, who turned 19 on March 29, led Notre Dame to the SWC tournament title in 2017 as well, and a spot in the Class L state title game against Sacred Heart.
“My first year, it was an adjustment. I was taking hard classes I had never taken before,” Bourne recalled. “The teachers actually cared about you and the classroom sizes were smaller (than his previous school, Abraham Lincoln in Brooklyn, New York).”
It wasn’t an easy adjustment for his teammates either. Bourne admittedly was hard on them in practice and during games.
But Bourne did lead and came up with the clutch shots – like his four 3-point shots in the second quarter of the second-round win against Notre Dame-West Haven and 26 of his 32 points In the fourth quarter and overtime as Notre Dame came back from down 21 points to beat Danbury in the quarterfinals.
Bourne hasn’t officially committed yet to a school for next year, but he says Manhattan out of the MAAC could be a possible destination.
If Bourne does land there, or elsewhere, some team will have a fearless guard ready to take the big shot — and make it.