RIDGEFIELD — The FCIAC Championship has been monopolized by Ridgefield boys basketball in recent years, and the Tigers will now play for their third consecutive title.
The No. 1 seeded Tigers advanced past No. 5 New Canaan 62-49 Tuesday night, the only team to hang a loss on Ridgefield in the regular season. Ridgefield will now face No. 6 Westhill in Friday’s FCIAC championship.
“They were a really good team, we played them in the regular season in a double-overtime loss,” Ridgefield coach Andrew McClellan said. “It went right down to the wire, but we improved a lot and I thought we were in very good shape for this.”
Ridgefield was led on the court by junior point guard Matthew Knachel, who led all scorers with 23 points, going an impressive 12-14 from the free-throw line.
“(Knachel) has really developed throughout the season,” McClellan said. “He has had some huge games for us and I don’t think there is a better point guard in the league. I think he showed that tonight and the whole second half of the season.”
Junior Justin DiFabio scored 12 points while freshman Dylan Veillette added 11 to help Ridgefield (14-1) advance.
“It is great to have the experience of playing in big games before,” Knachel said. “It is a whole team effort, and we all played really well tonight to get the win.”
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New Canaan (10-3) played a tighter game than the final score would indicate, allowing Ridgefield to get its largest lead in the final quarter.
Heading into the locker room in a 26-26 tie, McClellan preached the game plan that has made Ridgefield the powerhouse it is today.
“What we try to do is get out in transition, and they limited us in the first half,” McClellan said. “At halftime that is what we talked about. We made a few adjustments and we have had a ton of success this year doing that.”
The Tigers came out in the third quarter and dictated the tempo, finishing the quarter with a slim 42-38 lead.
“In the third quarter we played at our pace and sped the game up,” McClellan said. “That led into a little bit of a lead and they had to come after us. When people have to come after us, it is hard to do. We are pretty organized and disciplined and we have great guard play.”
With New Canaan trailing, the Ridgefield machine rolled on, capitalizing at the free-throw line by shooting 14 of 19 to outscore New Canaan 20-11 in the final quarter.
“I am so proud of these seniors and all that they have accomplished,” New Canaan coach Danny Melzer said. “I know that is hard for them to understand right now, but what these seniors have accomplished in terms of making New Canaan basketball relevant and one of the best programs in the FCIAC. That is what I am proud of.”
New Canaan has had three straight winning seasons with a combined record of 41-16 in that timeframe following a 5-14 season four years ago.
Seniors Christian Sweeney and Leo Magnus were largely responsible for New Canaan’s transformation, and each had double-digit points in their final game while sophomore Blake Wilson led New Canaan in points with 14.
For the Tigers, raising another trophy remains the focus.
“Things happen, you can’t always make a championship,” Knachel said. “But at this point we have really built a program where it isn’t about the individuals playing, but a system that everyone knows and plays together. We are pumped.”