GREENWICH — The rapidly approaching FAA Boys Basketball Tournament includes just four teams this season, instead of the six squads it featured in previous years, so for Hamden Hall Country Day School and Brunswick School, each game is like a postseason matchup.
The Hornets and Bruins entered Friday’s FAA game in a duel for the fourth and final berth into the FAA Tournament and the game resembled a postseason affair, with each squad extra focused on every possession down the stretch.
For Hamden Hall, it was their dynamic backcourt duo of Jackson Benigni and Corey Walters that made the difference.
Benigni and Walters scored 25 points apiece to power Hamden Hall to an exciting 59-58 win over host Brunswick in a critical late-season league game.
With the victory, Hamden Hall, which is 10-8 overall, moved its FAA record to 5-5 with two league matchups remaining. The Hornets are in fourth place in the league. Brunswick (7-13 overall) dropped to 3-8 in FAA play with just a conference game against Greens Farms Academy left. The Bruins are in fifth place and saw their chances of postseason action hampered with the tough loss.
“We had a really hard loss at home against Rye (Country Day School) and we had a really tough practice yesterday (Thursday),” Hamden Hall coach Sean Doherty said. “I really got on the guys on making defensive stops and how that would get you back in games and it transferred into today’s game. We were able to get some steals and turn them over, which helped us get some energy.”
Trailing 58-57, the Hornets took a 59-58 lead when Benigni drove the lane and converted a right-handed layup with 20.8 seconds remaining in the second half.
Brunswick called a timeout and worked the ball around the perimeter for a last shot, but Benigni made a steal in the final seconds and the Hornets pulled out the victory.
The second half saw the Bruins open leads of 40-34 and 46-38.
“I feel like with us, we just need to have energy the full 32 minutes, whether we are up, or down,” said Benigni, who earned NEPSAC Class B Player of the Year honors in 2019 for the defending FAA champion Hornets. “We know we can fight back with any lead, we have veterans in the locker room. We just have to keep the same level of intensity the whole game.”
Brunswick, which dropped a 73-60 decision to Hamden Hall in Hamden on Jan. 30, received a season-high 18 points from sophomore forward Henry Caponiti and 14 points from junior guard Tristan Joseph. Colin Mulshine, a junior forward, added 13 points for Brunswick, which trailed 30-28 at halftime.
“We came into this game thinking it was a playoff game, because the playoffs are coming up,” Mulshine said. “We’ve had a few tough losses, so we were definitely ready to go today.”
Added Bruins coach Steve Juricek: “Both teams played hard, they executed on their last possession and we didn’t execute on ours. Give them all the credit, they came out and played a great game. We executed well, we shared the ball, but we have to be a little tougher defensively.”
Junior forward Owen MacDonough made a layup while being fouled, then swished the ensuing free throw, giving the Hornets a 30-22 lead with 2:15 left in the opening half. Brunswick closed the half with a 6-0 run, capped by a layup by junior forward Dan Arnold to close to within 30-28.
In the second half, Walters scored off a putback, giving the visitors a 34-31 advantage with 14:30 remaining. A 9-0 Bruins spurt, sparked by five points from Joseph, put the home team on top, 40-34, with 11:11 left to play.
Joseph buried a 3-pointer from the left side, giving Brunswick its biggest lead at 46-38 at the 8:41 mark of the second half.
“We have been in this position many times before, we know how to handle adversity,” Joseph said. “We didn’t let any bad breaks get the best of us. Our sole purpose on the game’s final possession was to stop No. 5 (Benigni) from scoring, but it didn’t go our way.”
Hamden Hall drew even, then eventually took the lead, behind the backcourt tandem of Benigni and Walters. Benigni’s 3-pointer cut Brunswick’s lead to 48-45 with 5:22 to go, then he hit another shot from beyond the arc, tying the score at 50-50 (3:32 left).
Joseph drove to the basket and converted a layup, while being fouled, then made the ensuing foul shot, giving the Bruins a 58-57 edge with just 32 seconds remaining.
Benigni responded with his go-ahead basket.
“In the second half, we were just trying to hold it, limit their possessions and spread the floor,” Walters said. “We wanted to get as many drives into the paint as we could get.”
PLAYERS OF THE GAME
Benigni scored 14 of his 25 points in the second half, while Walters had 13 first-half points.
“Walters’ mid-range game has been phenomenal,” Doherty said. “He made some great pull-up jumpers. He’s been like that all year for us. Jackson made some big plays, he plays like that a lot.”
Caponiti scored nine points in each half on his way to a season-best points performance.