NEW CANAAN — One day, when the boys basketball season is complete, New Canaan head coach Danny Melzer will be able to sit down and take a good long look at what has been a historic season for his Rams.
For the time being, he’s focused on the task at hand.
New Canaan delivered a stellar defensive effort and rolled to a 57-38 victory over the St. Bernard Saints in the CIAC Division IV quarterfinals Friday night at New Canaan.
No. 4 New Canaan (18-5) will face No. 16 St. Joseph (14-10) in the semifinals on Tuesday, March 12, at a site and time to be determined. The Cadets, the only other FCIAC team in Division IV, defeated Stonington 69-67 in double OT on Friday.
“It feels great, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself,” Melzer said of getting to the semifinals. “We’ve got a goal of winning a championship and now we’re two wins away from that. When the season’s all said and done, I’ll look back and appreciate our success, but right now, we’re ultra-focused on getting two more wins.”
New Canaan, which hadn’t won a postseason game since 2008, now has two state wins in three days.
“It’s honestly been crazy,” New Canaan senior tri-captain Luke Rwambuya said. “After losing in FCIACs, we wanted to make a run in states and we’ve been able to come out, stay strong and win. This has been huge for us.”
The Rams had several big performances. Rwambuya led the way with 12 points and also had six rebounds, junior Matt Brand scored 10, senior tri-captain Jack Richardson had nine points and six rebounds, junior Ryan McAleer had five points and five assists, and senior Stephen Wronski had six points and six rebounds.
For No. 5 St. Bernard (18-5), senior Max Lee had a game-high 15 points, and senior De’Andre Williams had eight points.
The Saints had won their first two tournament games by 21 points apiece, and led the Rams 11-10 at the end of the first quarter after Frank Pacheco nailed a three from the corner at the buzzer.
New Canaan’s defense then took over and helped the Rams regain the lead at 25-15 by halftime. A 3-pointer by senior tri-captain Ben Sarda put New Canaan in front at 15-13 and then Rwambuya and Richardson came up with two blocks on back-to-back attempts by the Saints at the other end.
New Canaan eventually ended the half with an 8-0 run to build a 10-point lead, as St. Bernard scored just four points in the second quarter.
“We made some shots early and then it kind of died down,” Saints head coach Mark Jones said. “We started missing shots, and 3s, which is a big part of our game. We just weren’t hitting them tonight and when you don’t hit them and they’re getting layups, it’s tough to win.”
For New Canaan, the defense ruled the day.
“Defense has been our M.O. all year,” Melzer said. “I told the kids coming into the tournament that if we were going to win this thing we were going to have to rely on our defense. In the first two games, we’ve really played excellent defense. To hold this team to 38 points is an incredible accomplishment because they’ve got a lot of guys who can play and a lot of guys who can shoot.”
New Canaan opened the third quarter with an 8-2 spurt which made it a 33-17. Lee then heated up for the Saints and closed the gap to 10, but the Rams pulled away in the fourth for the double-digit win.
The game became a bit heated late, when Lee was called for his fifth foul and the Saints were hit with two technicals, giving the Rams six free throws. New Canaan hit three of those shots, but the game had already been decided at that point.
“We showed a tremendous amount of mental, physical, and emotional toughness tonight,” Melzer said. “That game got chippy and we could have lost our cool, but to these kids’ credit, they never did and we’re moving on.”
For the Saints, who won the ECC championship, the season ended with a loss, but they walked away heads held high after a solid campaign.
“With our seniors, they should be happy — not happy that they lost because you always want to end up on top — but happy with that they had a great year,” Jones said.
“They played their butts off this season and they won the ECC. There aren’t a lot of teams who can say they made it even to the quarters, so they’ve had a good year and good careers.”
PLAYER OF THE GAME
Luke Rwambuya, New Canaan. Rwambuya did a little bit of everything for the Rams, scoring a team-best 12 points and collecting six rebounds, three assists, two steals and two blocks.
“Just to be able to work towards something these past three years and change the culture surrounding the program is great. Going from four or five wins every season to making it all the way to the semis, and hopefully making the finals, was one of our goals.” — New Canaan senior co-captain Luke Rwambuya