WESTPORT — In the recent past it was not uncommon to see the New Canaan boys basketball team establish an early lead, only to see it disappear down the stretch and ultimately turn into a loss.
This year, however, it’s been a different story for the Rams.
Monday night at Staples High School, the Rams were up by as many as 15 points in the third quarter before Staples whittled that lead to three with 3:37 left in the game.
Instead of folding, New Canaan, as it has all season, showed its resiliency by getting some huge stops on defense and converting key foul shots in the final moments, all of which led to a 62-55 win over the Wreckers.
“It’s a credit to how far we’ve come,” New Canaan head coach Danny Melzer said. “A typical New Canaan team in years past would have blown that and we didn’t. That’s who we are becoming. We’re becoming a program that knows how to win games and finish games and close out games and I’m proud of the fact that we did it again tonight.”
Senior Matt Brand overcame some early foul trouble to lead New Canaan with 16 points. Senior co-captain Ben Sarda also had a hot hand, shooting 5-of-6 from three-point range to add 15 points for the Rams who improved to 15-4 on the year and 11-4 in FCIAC play.
“Every night it’s another guy who leads this team,” Sarda said. “I never feel pressure to be shooting well every night and if I’m shooting well I have someone else’s back who might not be. Playing with no pressure on our shoulders is the best part of being on this team.”
With the win, the Rams, who will face Westhill in their regular season finale on Wednesday, are guaranteed to finish no lower than the No. 5 seed in the FCIAC playoffs, which kick off Saturday with the quarterfinals at Fairfield-Warde High School. With a victory over Westhill, New Canaan would secure the No. 4 seed.
Meanwhile, Staples dropped to 8-11 overall and 5-10 in the FCIAC. The Wreckers will wrap up its regular season Wednesday at St. Joe’s before prepping for states.
Despite solid offensive games from junior co-captain Jake Thaw (22 points) and senior Lefty Pendarakis (14 points), the Wreckers came close but could not completely dig themselves out of their early hole.
“I think the kids played extremely hard and played together tonight,” Staples head coach Colin Devine said. “To beat a really good, well-coached team like New Canaan you have to put 32 minutes together. We gave them our best shot at the end and to New Canaan’s credit they had the resolve. We still have a lot of basketball left with one regular season game and the state tournament, so we have time to put together a 32-minute effort. Hopefully we can get that straightened out before states.”
The Rams came out on fire, ending the first quarter on an 11-3 run to take a 20-9 lead heading into the second.
The Wreckers cut that lead to 24-19 on the strength of an 8-0 run of their own. A basket from New Canaan senior co-captain Luke Rwambuya and a three from Sarda put New Canaan back up by ten before Staples senior co-captain Evan Vishno converted a pair of free throws to send the teams into the half with New Canaan up 29-21.
New Canaan looked poised to put the game away in the third as the Rams outscored Staples 14-5 to start the quarter to take a 43-28 lead, its largest of the game. The Wreckers countered by closing out the quarter on a 10-3 run to make it 46-38 New Canaan at the end of three.
A basket from Pendarakis to start the fourth cut the Rams’ lead to 46-40 before Brand converted a traditional three-point play that put New Canaan back up by nine.
A three from Thaw and another from junior AJ Konstanty sandwiched a New Canaan basket from senior Stephen Wronski to make it 51-46 with five minutes left to play.
After Wronski sank both ends of a one-and-one, Pendarakis hit a layup and Thaw scored on a pair of free throws cutting the Rams lead to 53-50 with 3:37 remaining in the fourth.
That was as close as Staples would get.
New Canaan got some key defensive stops and went 7-for-10 from the free throw line over the last 90 seconds, holding off the surging Wreckers and sealing the victory — the eighth for the Rams in their last nine games.
“We knew we’d get Staples’ best shot tonight and we did. They made a bunch of threes and Thaw is legit. Down the stretch, you need to get stops and make free throws and we did both of those. That’s a winning formula. I told my guys after the game that playoff games are typically going to come down to the last three or four minutes — who executes and who doesn’t. Tonight we executed like a playoff team.” — New Canaan head coach Danny Melzer.
NEW CANAAN 62, STAPLES 55
New Canaan (15-4, 12-3 FCIAC)
Matt Brand 6 4-4 16, Aaron Fishman 0 0-0 0, Ben Sarda 5 0-0 15, Alex Gibbens 1 0-0 2, Ryan McAleer 2 3-4 7, Christian Sweeney 0 0-0 0, Luke Rwambuya 2 2-4 6, Jack Richardson 1 2-2 4, Stephen Wronski 4 4-4 12. Totals 21 15-18 62
Staples (8-11, 5-10 FCIAC)
Jake Thaw 6 4-4 22, Benny Feuer 0 0-0 0, Dylan Ward 0 0-0 0, AJ Konstanty 4 0-1 8, Teddy Dienst 0 0-0 0, Lucas Basich, 4 0-0 12, Evan Vishno 0 2-2 2, Dylan Honig 0 0-0 0, Lefty Pendarakis 6 2-3 14. Totals 20 8-10 55
NEW CANAAN 20 9 17 16 – 62
STAPLES 9 12 1717 – 55
3-pointers: NC – Sarda 5; S – Basich 4, Thaw 3