WINDSOR — When it was over, after a night that captured everything that makes high school basketball great, Matt Knowling was good enough to step back out of the East Catholic bus.
“We’ve got to be a lot better,” the Eagles’ 6-foot-5 senior said after his team’s first loss of the season. “When we play Windsor, there’s a lot of fire in the matchup. They beat us last year in the conference championship. We beat them in the state championship. We have to be ready to make fire.”
Oh, fire had been made on this Tuesday night.
Ninety minutes before the start of the highly anticipated matchup between the top two-ranked high school teams in Connecticut, the glass doors at Windsor High had been shut and “Sold Out” signs were hung. You could have fried eggs on the foreheads of a couple hundred fans in the January chill pushed up against the entrance, angry not to get into the Warriors’ gym. Police urged them to disperse.
Oh, there was fire. And it was still the first half of the jayvee game.
I found a semi-quiet spot in the hallway near the restrooms to answer a call from Yale coach James Jones. He successfully recruited Knowling to Yale, loves the kid from Ellington. Knowling made it clear the feeling is mutual. Minutes after finishing his own practice in New Haven, Jones had a question.
“What’s it like up there?” he said.
“Packed,” was the answer. “Nuts.”
“I knew it was going to be a madhouse,” he said.
Yeah, this was going to be a dandy.
East Catholic entered 11-0, with a 69-game regular-season winning streak dating back to Dec. 22, 2016. The Eagles, No. 1 in the GameTimeCT state poll, already had knocked off Lynn English, No. 1 in Massachusetts according to the Boston Globe, and Archbishop Stepinac of White Plains, N.Y., ranked No. 21 in the country by ESPN.
No. 2 Windsor had lost three times, but all had come over the Christmas break to strong Florida teams in the Battle at The Villages. This game had been moved from Dec. 20 and it only served to heighten the anticipation.
Windsor, which came into the night average 84.2 points and more than 90 against state teams, wants to score 100 every time out. East Catholic, which entered allowing 42.7 points a game, wants to give up zero. It is zero exaggeration to call them the best offensive and best defensive teams in the state.
According to New England Recruiting Report, the top three 2020 CIAC (non-prep schools) players were dressed. Windsor’s Corey McKeithan, headed to Rider, is No. 7 in Connecticut overall, and his teammate Primo Spears, No. 16, has not committed. Putnam Science’s Hassan Diarra, committed to Texas A&M, is ranked No. 1. Knowling is eighth.
“His versatility,” Jones said, when asked what attracted him to Knowling. “His ability to do multiple things. The game comes to him easy. He just has this smoothness and a toughness that is obvious.”
And obviously to get into Yale he’s a good student and good kid?
“That goes without saying,” said Jones, whose team has risen to No. 41 in the RPI rankings.
Knowling averaged 19 points and 13 rebounds on a loaded East Catholic team last season that finished 27-1 and featured Jaylin Hunter (who’s at Old Dominion) and Joey Reilly (at Holy Cross). The only returning starter, Knowling had 25 against Lynn English and 26 against Archbishop Stepanic.
“My assistant Matt Kingsley is the first one to see him play, fell in love with him and got us involved,” Jones said. “(Eagles coach) Luke Reilly and I have been friends for a long time. He brought Matt to campus. He played pickup with our guys and I got a lot of positive feedback from them. I saw him play multiple times through their playoff run last season.
“He’s a kid who can do multiple things for us. He can play the 3 and 4 and can be a defensive stopper, a point forward. It all depends on his development and how hard he works. We’ve been pretty successful building a team on our parts changing to suit who we are. And we’ll do the same with Matt.”
That’s Knowling’s future. His present was running into a near-deafening gym that fell silent for a full minute pregame after Windsor coach Ken Smith asked for a tribute to Kobe Bryant.
The full volume returned.
“The place was jamming,” Reilly said. “You couldn’t hear anybody.”
East Catholic committed too many turnovers in the first half. After starting out hot, Windsor settled for too many 3 attempts. Slowly, the Eagles fought their way back into this game that left wanting for only two things: A 30-second shot clock and a third official.
East Catholic defeated Windsor in the regular season last year. Windsor won the Central Connecticut Conference tournament championship, 87-85. The Eagles won the one that mattered most, 79-74, for the Division I state title at Mohegan Sun.
Another season. Yes, another night of fire beckoned.
“It lived up to all the hype,” Reilly said.
That it did. Knowling’s floater in the lane with 5:36 remaining finally gave East its first lead. He found a backdoor cutter on the baseline for another score. And when Knowling hit two free throws with 17.6 seconds remaining to give the Eagles a 45-44 lead, it looked like we had a hero.
“I’ve been working toward this,” Knowling said. “I’m a senior now, playing Windsor for four years. I really want to make the most of it.”
We had a hero all right. It was Corey McKeithan. On a night like this, you understand how much Bryant’s competitive fire, his clutch play, his Mamba mentality, means to young players. After Knowling’s free throws, McKeithan said all that was in his mind was “Kobe … yeah Kobe.”
McKeithan is the kid who hit the game-winning 3-pointer two years ago to beat East Catholic in the state quarterfinals. And now here he was driving to the basket, doing an incredible 360-degree spin to elude Matt Houde and Brody Limric, to score with 8.5 seconds left.
“The 360?” Smith said, smiling. “We work on that play every day in practice.”
Knowling, who finished with a game-high 16 points, took the inbound pass, began to fight his way up court. With two defenders closing in the chaos, he was called for stepping on the left sideline with two seconds left.
“I couldn’t tell if I did,” Knowling said. “A tough one.”
McKeithan hit two free throws. Windsor 48, East Catholic 45. The Eagles got the pace it wanted. Windsor got the W they wanted.
As the final buzzer sounded, Knowling dropped to a crouch at center court and buried his head in his hands. Reilly immediately walked out to console him and guide him toward the handshake line. Knowling kicked the bottom of the stands once, gathered himself, shook hands and engaged McKeithan in a warm embrace between competitors.
“Outstanding,” Smith said of Knowling. “The kid is going to Yale. That’s putting in the work, in the classroom, on the court. He’s an outstanding player.”
“Matt’s a great winner and it was very evident he has been in this spot many times before,” Reilly said. “He tried to share his confidence with the guys tonight. I was happy with the way he rallied them up at halftime and kind of settled people down and took the lead. He was in position to win that game. It just didn’t go down that way.”
Dartmouth, Brown, Bryant, Fairfield, Canisius, Binghamton and Central Connecticut had recruited Knowling.
“It’s hard to beat Yale, best place academically in the world,” Knowling said. “It’s a really great team. They’re winning. They’re making the NCAA Tournament. Hard to beat.”
And with that Knowling began to step back on the East Catholic team bus.
“We just have to learn from this game,” he said. “Windsor is a great team. To be able to have a game to watch film from, we can learn from our mistakes and build off it. We’ll take it one game at a time.”
Knowling paused for a moment.
“We’ll see them again,” he said.
More fire to come.