NEW CANAAN — Danny Melzer typically doesn’t celebrate at the end of basketball games. However, following the latest victory for his New Canaan, Melzer made an exception.
Junior Ryan McAleer intercepted a long inbounds pass and then banked in a 3-point shot from halfcourt to give New Canaan a wild 52-49 victory over the Stamford Black Knights in front of a packed house Thursday night at NCHS.
“I celebrated — I never celebrate,” Melzer, the Rams’ head coach, said. “I’ve never done that in my life, but I didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t expecting it to go in. I was thinking we’ve got overtime and then the ball went in. What a great moment.”
It was indeed a remarkable comeback for the Rams, who scored the game’s final eight points, including six points in the final 0.9 seconds. Junior Aaron Fishman nailed three free throws to tie the game before McAleer’s dramatic basket ended it.
McAleer called the winning shot “surreal.”
— Roman Cebulski (@mrcebulski) January 11, 2019
“I just lofted it up; I saw it and took it,” McAleer said. “As soon it left my hand, it felt good, and then I saw it go in and it was so surreal. It feels so weird right now. I’m just glad it went in.”
“He was in the right place at the right time,” Melzer said. “We were prepared for them to run baseline and try to pick up a foul, so Mac was prepared for that. He caught the ball, shot it, and the rest is history.”
The victory pushed the Rams’ record to 6-2 and put them two wins away from qualifying for the state tournament for the first time since 2009. It was also the first win in three tries for Melzer against his former team.
Stamford, which fell to 3-4, seemed to have the game in hand with a less than two minutes to play, but a pair of missed free throws in the final minute helped keep the door open for New Canaan.
“We did everything we were supposed to do,” Stamford head coach Zach Smith said. “I thought we played as hard or harder than them; we played our best defensive game of the year; we just gave them the game in the last two minutes.”
The Rams has featured a deep lineup this season, and that proved true again on Thursday, as three seniors scored in double digits: Matt Brand had 14 points, co-captain Jack Richardson had 12, and Ben Sarda had 10. Including his game-winning three, McAleer scored nine.
For Stamford, senior Manny Azolin had a game-high 16 points, while junior Jaden Bell and sophomore Jose Oliva scored nine apiece.
With their defense leading the way, the Knights outscored New Canaan 23-14 in the second quarter and led 33-24 at halftime.
“Stamford High played us really tough,” Melzer said. “We couldn’t get anything going on offense and that’s a total credit to them. But we got a few stops down the stretch when we needed them and we caught a couple of breaks and took advantage of them.”
“It was all about our defense,” Smith said. “It was our best defensive game of the year. That half was great. Everything we had worked on for a week worked for us. I’m very happy with the effort we gave. I hope that this can be a turning point for us. It’s obviously a tough loss, but they made plays down down the stretch and we didn’t. That was the difference in the game.”
The Rams closed the gap in the third quarter, getting as close as two points before ending the frame down 42-38.
New Canaan tied the score at 44-44 on two buckets by Brand, but Stamford scored the next five, including four from Azolin, to take a 49-44 lead with two minutes remaining.
A Richardson jump shot reduced the deficit to three, but New Canaan missed a couple of three-point attempts and the Knights were within sight of the win.
With the clock ticking down, Fishman grabbed an offensive rebound after a missed three, stepped back behind the arc, threw up an off-balance attempt, and drew a foul. He then calmly sank all three free throws with 0.9 on the clock to tie the score 49-49.
“In practice we have a situation where if they make a free throw, practice is over, if they don’t, they’ve got to run,” Melzer said. “We let the kids choose who to pick, and they always pick Fish and he always makes them. So when he got fouled, we all had confidence that he was going to make them. He barely played in the game, so for him to step up and make those three free throws is as clutch as it gets.”
Azolin threw the ensuing inbounds pass from under the Stamford basket, but McAleer read the play, picked it off, and made the shot, resulting in a pile-up of players and fans on the court.
For the Rams, it was the latest celebration in what has become their best season in more than a decade.
“There’s more energy,” McAleer said. “Last year, we had a losing record early and everybody got down on themselves. Now, we have some early wins and we’re playing with energy and passion and it’s helping us so much.
Players of the game
Ryan McAleer and Aaron Fishman, New Canaan. There were plenty of top-notch performances for the Rams, but the clutch performances by McAleer and Fishman in the final second made the difference. Fishman went 3-for-3 on free throws to tie the game, and McAleer then made a big defensive play to intercept a pass and hit the half-court three to win it.
“This is awesome. Our kids feed off the energy from their peers being here, just like any high school kids do. We’re really appreciative of these kids coming to these games to support the team. I told the kids, as we win more games, more kids will come and we’re doing our part. They did such a good job cheering us on and it was great atmosphere. There’s a lot of buzz around basketball, both for the boys and the girls, and that’s a credit to how much time the kids are putting in.” — New Canaan head coach Danny Melzer
NEW CANAAN 52, STAMFORD 49
Stamford 10 23 9 7 – 49
New Canaan 10 14 14 14 – 52
Stamford: Manny Azolin 7 2-4 16, Jaden Bell 4 0-0 9, Jose Oliva 3 0-0 9, Jay Jaudon 3 1-1 7, Josh Thervill 1 0-0 3, Tyheim Burgess 1 1-2 3, Danny Simms 1 0-0 2. Totals 20 4-7 49
New Canaan: Matt Brand 7 0-0 14, Ben Sarda 3 2-3 10, Jack Richardson 6 0-0 12, Ryan McAleer 3 2-4 9, Aaron Fishman 0 3-3 3, Stephen Wronski 1 0-0 2, Alex Gibbens 1 0-0 2, Luke Rwambuya 0 0-0 0. Totals 21 7-10 52
3-pointers: S – Oliva 3, Thervill, Bell; NC – Sarda 2, McAleer