— Derek Turner (@DCT_Sports) March 7, 2017
FAIRFIELD >> Everyone in the gym was holding their breath as Xavier’s Kyle MacGillis hurled an inbound pass three-quarters of the way down the court at Fairfield Warde High School.
Xavier had one last chance to win in the first round of the Class LL state tournament as it trailed the Mustangs by a point after Malcolm Brune sank one-of-two foul shots with 1.2 seconds left to give Warde the lead.
Kyle Jenkins, a long 6-foot-5 sophomore, caught the pass at the top of the key, arced a shot that bounced off the front of the rim, then the backboard and off the side of the rim and to the floor.
The Warde bench erupted as the Xavier bench collapsed to their knees, 10th-seeded Fairfield Warde hung on to beat 23rd-seeded Xavier 55-54.
“My heart dropped for a second,” Fairfield Warde coach Ryan Swaller said, “as the ball rolled around the rim.”
The Mustangs will travel to seventh-seeded Norwich Free Academy in the second round on Wednesday at 7 p.m.
“We executed the last play,” Xavier coach Mike Kohs said. “We got the shot that we wanted to get and, to be honest, I thought it was in. Front of the rim, back of the rim, sat on the rim for a while and just rolled off.”
Warde was pretty much in control throughout the first half and took the lead for good at 12-10 with 2:14 to play in the first quarter and led 30-18 at halftime.
“We challenged our guys,” Kohs said. “We had a poor first half. We didn’t shoot the ball well, we didn’t get the ball inside at all, which is what we wanted to do. We didn’t finish inside. I don’t think we shot foul shots very well. I don’t think there is any one facet of the game that we did well in the first half.”
But a strong second half surge propelled the Falcons. They outscored the Mustangs 36-25 over the final 16 minutes. It came down to tenths of a second.
“That’s the way Xavier is,” Swaller said. “A couple coaches said their team doesn’t quit, so I didn’t expect them to just roll over for us.”
Mitch Nappi hit the game-tying 3-pointer with 1:03 to play to make it 54-54, but then Fairfield Warde hung on for the final shot.
— Derek Turner (@DCT_Sports) March 7, 2017
The play started with about five second left, Sean Conway, who scored a team-high 16 points, dribbled around the 3-point line and got the ball to Brune off a pick-and-roll. Brune drove the lane and was fouled by Xavier sophomore Jackson Benigni, the game’s leading scoring with 20 points. It was his fifth of the game.
“Sean’s pass to Malcolm was a great play,” Swaller said. “Most players in that situation want to make the game-winning shot. Sean realized he was overplayed and just made the pass down low.”
Xavier coach Mike Kohs thought the call should have been a jump ball, but Brune made the one free throw that counted and got the win.
“Tough call underneath where I thought it was a jump ball,” Kohs said. “But the refs did a super job.”
The Falcons’ real run started just after Warde senior Rashad Butler was issued a technical foul with 5:54 left in the third quarter. Benigni made both free throws and set Xavier on a 9-0 run that included four points from Jenkins — who finished with 12, all in the second half — and an old fashion three-point play by Alec McGovern to pull within five.
“We were overplaying their two shooters,” Swaller said. “Their big guys started to get more looks inside.”
Warde calmly kept its distance until a 10-2 run to start the fourth quarter got the Falcons within two.
Butler answered with a 3-pointer and Conway added two more with a driving layup. Nappi responded with his first 3-pointer of the game with just under five minutes to play.
With 2:32 left in the fourth, Conway converted an and-one opportunity to extend the Mustangs lead to 53-46. Some may have said it was over, but not quite.
Benigni sank a 3. Warde’s Marcel Parsons made one-of-two free throws. Benigni made two free throws. Parsons missed the first of a one-and-one. Nappi hit the biggest 3-pointer of the game. But the even bigger shot was from the free throw line with 1.2 seconds on the clock.
Fairfield Warde 55, Xavier 54
Xavier: 12 6 11 25 — 54
Fairfield Warde: 15 15 8 17 — 55
(at Fairfield Warde)
Xavier (54) — Mitch Nappi 4 1-2 11, Jackson Benigni 6 6-9 20, Alec McGovern 4 1-1 9, Ethan Telford 0 0-0 0, Kyle MacGillis 0 0-0 0, Kyle Jenkins 4 4-8 12, Matt Bielenda 0 0-0 0, Zach Strole 1 0-0 2 — Total 19 12-20 54.
Fairfield Warde (55) — J.J. Conway 0 4-6 4, Matt Becker 2 0-0 6, Sean Conway 7 1-1 16, Rashad Butler 3 0-0 7, Marcel Parsons 3 1-3 7, Jackson Longley 4 0-0 8, Malcolm Brune 3 1-2 7 — Total 22 7-12 55.
3-point goals: Xavier 4 (Nappi 2, Benigni 2); Fairfield Warde 4 (Becker 2, S. Conway, Butler).
Technical fouls: Xavier — none; Fairfield Warde — Rashad Butler.
Team records: Xavier 10-12; Fairfield Warde 17-6.