NORWALK – With its second miraculous finish in less than a month, you have to start thinking there’s something special about this year’s New Canaan Rams basketball team.
With the Rams trailing Brien McMahon by one with 7.2 seconds to play, New Canaan junior Alex Gibbens intercepted an inbounds pass at half-court, dribbled twice, squared up and drilled a 27-foot desperation three-point shot that gave the Rams a dramatic, improbable 51-49 win over the Senators Friday in Norwalk.
“It’s to the point now where nothing this team does surprises me,” New Canaan head coach Danny Melzer said. “They just love stepping up in big moments and it’s different guys at different times.”
This time, it was Gibbens’ turn to play the role of the hero. New Canaan’s leading scorer a year ago, Gibbens has struggled offensively this season and has been relegated to sixth-man duty for the past five games. It’s a role embraced by Gibbens and one that has worked for the Rams as New Canaan has won all of its games since the move.
NC wins 51-49 with Gibbens 3-pointer #6 pic.twitter.com/D8Jwa87qY7
— New Canaan HS Basketball (@NCHSBasketball2) February 2, 2019
With New Canaan trailing by 11 in the first minute of the third quarter and playing without starting senior forward Matt Brand, who left the game with a head injury, Gibbens caught fire, draining five three-pointers to get the Rams back into the game.
“Brand got injured and we just got fired up,” Gibbens said. “In the third quarter coach just told me to go out and shoot the ball. I listened to him and just kept knocking down my shots.”
“I knew we were going to lean heavily on Gibbens in the second half,” Melzer said. “He went out there and he carried us to the victory. It was a complete team victory as all of ours are, but tonight started and ended with Gibbens. It’s been a very frustrating season for him and to see him have success like that in the biggest of moments — I’m so proud of him.”
To the Senators’ credit, McMahon fought back after New Canaan went up by as many as six points in the fourth quarter. Seniors Michael Fuller and Justin Lebron led the Senator comeback with five points each in the quarter.
Lebron’s three with 2:34 left gave McMahon a 45-44 lead. After New Canaan re-took the lead on senior co-captain Luke Rwambuya’s layup, Fuller hit a floater to make it 47-46 Senators with 1:06 remaining.
McMahon seemed to have the game wrapped up when New Canaan missed a three-pointer on its ensuing possession and junior Eric Miller hit both ends of a one-and-one after being fouled, extending the Senators’ lead to 49-46 with 28 seconds on the clock.
New Canaan senior co-captain Jack Richardson’s put-back closed the McMahon lead to 49-48 with 7.2 seconds left, and New Canaan immediately called a timeout, setting the stage for Gibbens’ last-second heroics.
“I just saw the ball go up and I used to play football so I went and got it,” Gibbens said. “I just went down the court and shot it because I thought it was the last shot. It was amazing.”
With the win the Rams are 12-3 on the season and took another major step toward clinching a conference playoff berth by improving to 8-3 in the FCIAC. Gibbens led all scorers with 18 points — all on threes. Senior Stephen Wronski added 8 and junior Ryan McAleer chipped in with 7 for the streaking Rams, who have won eight of their last nine games.
Meanwhile, the Senators dropped to 7-7 overall and 4-6 in the conference. Lebron and Miller led McMahon with 13 points apiece. Fuller added 7 for the Senators, who were forced to play without star senior Saikwon Williams (6 points) for most of the game after he was assessed his second technical foul and was ejected midway through the second quarter.
“Saikwon is obviously a game-changing player but we have to find ways to win,” McMahon head coach Joe LaPrad said. “We had the game won. You can’t give them a chance — we have to close them out. Regardless of Saikwon being out, we have a lot of good players besides him. We were getting stops once we made the adjustments but hand it to them. It’s a make-or-miss league and they made their shots in the second half.”
Things started out well for McMahon as Miller scored six of his 13 points in the first quarter to help the Senators jump out to a 15-10 lead heading into the second.
A three from Miller and baskets from Lebron and Fuller extended the McMahon lead to a game-high 12-point advantage, 22-10 with 5:24 left in the quarter.
Things got physical in the second and both teams were assessed technical fouls early in the quarter. Moments after New Canaan lost Brand to his injury following a collision, Williams was disqualified for taunting after scoring his third basket of the night. It was a turning point for the energized Rams who cut the McMahon lead to 25-16 going into halftime.
Behind the shooting of Gibbens, New Canaan erupted in the third going on a 19-5 run to take a 35-30 lead with 2:39 left in the quarter. The Rams got up by as many as six in the fourth quarter after Wronski scored on consecutive possessions to make it 40-34 New Canaan with 5:50 to play.
McMahon would go on a 15-6 run after that to seemingly take the game back for good. But Alex Gibbens and the New Canaan Rams had other ideas.
PLAYER OF THE GAME
Alex Gibbens, New Canaan. Gibbens, a junior, scored 18 points on six 3-point baskets, including the game-winner with 2.7 seconds remaining.
“It’s a credit to these guys. We were down double-digits. We didn’t hang our heads. We never gave up. We scratched and clawed our way back. McMahon played great down the stretch and retook the lead so give credit to them too. It was a great high school game. Even if we had lost, I’d be saying the same thing. It was a playoff atmosphere and was a lot of fun.” — New Canaan head coach Danny Melzer
NEW CANAAN 51, MCMAHON 49
Ben Sarda 1 1-2 4, Matt Brand 2 0-0 4, Ryan McAleer 3 1-3 7, Stephen Wronski 3 2-2 8, Jack Richardson 2 0-0 4, Alex Gibbens 6 0-0 18, Luke Rwambuya 2 1-2 5, Aaron Fishman 0 41-2 1. Totals: 19 6-11 51
Eric Miller 3 5-5 13, Latrel Stewart 2 0-0 4, Mike Fuller 2 3-4 7, Justin Lebron 5 0-0 13, Saikwon Williams 3 0-1 6, Jajuan Higgins 1 2-3 4, Peter Neglia 1 0-0 2. Totals: 17 10-13 49
New Canaan 10 6 20 15 — 51
McMahon 15 10 7 17 — 49
3-pointers: NC – Gibbens 6, Sarda; BM – Justin Lebron 3, Eric Miller 2
Records: New Canaan (12-3 overall, 8-3 FCIAC); McMahon (7-7, 4-6)