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HAMDEN >> If any player was going to take over in the second half of the Southern Connecticut Conference championship game, the logical choice was Tremont Waters.
The Georgetown-bound point guard had done it countless times over the past 22 games for Notre Dame-West Haven, including the first half of Wednesday’s final. His long distance shooting and ability to create off the dribble helped the Green Knights dig their way out of an early 15-2 hole.
Yet with the game on the line in the fourth quarter, the player who stepped to the forefront was Hillhouse’s Joey Kasperzyk. The senior guard scored 17 of his 23 points in the second half in the Academics’ 70-62 victory in a battle of state heavyweights at a sold-out TD Bank Sports Center.
After seemingly every made jump shot and drive to the basket, Kasperzyk turned to face the Notre Dame crowd, pounding his chest and saying … something.
“(I was saying) you can’t guard me,” Kasperzyk said. “I just felt like nobody could stay in front of me and that I had to do it to pull out that win.”
Hillhouse (23-1) not only won its seventh SCC championship, but managed to hand previously unbeaten Notre Dame (22-1) its first loss of the season.
Kasperzyk scored 11 points in the fourth quarter, none bigger than a hard driving layup with 4 minutes to play that broke a 55-55 tie. Notre Dame had taken its one and only lead of the game seconds earlier, an offensive put-back by Jalanni White, a basket that energized the crowd and could have seized momentum.
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But the Academics never trailed from that point on. Kasperzyk’s basket ignited a 15-7 run to close the game. Hillhouse clamped down on Waters, who scored 16 points in the first half but managed only six points and one field goal in the second.
“I would love to play that game every day,” Hillhouse coach Renard Sutton said. “We’re just happy we got it done.”
The game took on a life of its own almost from the moment the semifinals ended on Monday, and conjured memories of the glory days of New Haven high school basketball, when upward of 6,000 would pack the old New Haven Arena for the best matchups.
The prospect of the No. 1 and No. 3 teams in the Register Top 10 poll meeting for the first time this season — as the top two seeds in the CIAC state tournament, they could meet again in the Class LL finals — turned Wednesday’s game into must-see basketball.
“We’ve had great matchups before; we’ve had sellouts before,” said league commissioner Al Carbone. “But nothing compares. This is the most anticipated event in the 23-year history of our league.”
A year ago, the SCC championship game between Fairfield Prep and Hillhouse was held at Shelton High. All 1,600 seats were sold, and many were turned away at the door. The league moved the game back to Quinnipiac because it didn’t want to be in that situation again.
But the circumstances surrounding this year’s final — one-loss Hillhouse against undefeated Notre Dame, led by Waters, perhaps the best player the league has ever seen — made Wednesday’s game a hot ticket. There’s no way to know how many were shut out at the ticket gate. It may have been several hundred.
Notre Dame and Hillhouse sold their allotment of tickets. The final 250 tickets for the were scheduled to go on sale at Quinnipiac at 4 p.m. Wednesday. By 2 a line had formed, so the ticket office opened early. By 4:04, every seat was sold and university police were directing ticket seekers away from the parking lots.
The final attendance of 3,421 represented only the second sellout in the building’s 10-year history.
“I thought maybe we’d get 2,000 or 2,500,” Carbone said. “I wasn’t expecting this kind of demand.”
The game, a back-and-forth affair, certainly lived up to the hype.
Hillhouse led 15-2 with 3:37 to play in the first quarter, thanks to lights-out shooting from Kasperzyk, Christian Adams (21 points) and Tyler Douglas (10 points). Notre Dame fought all the way back, but couldn’t stave off an Academic charge led by Kasperczyk, who consistently found his way to the basket despite lingering ankle and wrist injuries.
“He’s probably 70, 75 percent; he gutted it out,” Sutton said of Kasperzyk. “But the kid, when he focuses his mind and wants to get it done, he’s unstoppable.”