HAMDEN >> Fairfield Prep enjoyed plenty of blowout victories in its undefeated regular season. But the wins get a lot tougher when the games mean more.
All three games Prep played in the Southern Connecticut Conference tournament were in doubt until the final minute. All were flat-out battles. And the top seed and only undefeated team in Connecticut survived.
Prep beat No. 3 Hillhouse 56-52 on Wednesday night for its first league championship before 1,676 people at Quinnipiac’s TD Bank Sports Center.
“This is a really tough conference, arguably the toughest conference in the state,” said Prep guard Tom Nolan, the tournament’s most outstanding player. “It feels good to get the win over a great team like Hillhouse.”
Said Hillhouse coach Renard Sutton: “Those kids played hard. You have to respect the fact that they are a championship team.”
All three of Prep’s tourney wins were decided by four points. On Wednesday, Prep (23-0) never trailed and had Hillhouse down by 12 points early in the fourth quarter, but couldn’t put the defending champion away.
A 12-1 run cut the lead to 52-51 with 1:46 remaining. By that time it was a free throw shooting contest — something neither team was up for (Prep was 15-for-27, Hillhouse 10-for-19).
“I wasn’t happy with the way we finished the game,” Prep coach Leo Redgate said. “We handle (defensive) pressure fine with every other team. We knew what we would get and guys still weren’t making smart decisions.”
It was on two missed free throws that the smallest player on the floor made the two biggest plays of the game. Ray Featherston, all 5 feet 7 of him, grabbed two offensive rebounds, one while falling out of bounds. He kept possession with each of Prep’s final two timeouts, the last with 54.8 seconds left and Prep ahead 53-51.
“Being the smallest player on the court, no one is going to box me out,” Featherston said. “I was literally left alone for the rebound. (Hillhouse) went for it and I thought he would grab it and he jumped too early. So I saw my opportunity and I just grabbed it. On the last one, Dave Zielinski tapped it right to me.”
Said Nolan: “If he didn’t get those two rebounds, we are not SCC champs right now.”
Prep’s Keith Pettway made the last three points on free throws, the final one providing the final score. Hillhouse attempted four 3-pointers on the game’s final possession, but none fell and Prep had its title.
“I just think the big shot we needed down that stretch with a lot of those loose balls, we needed to hit one,” Sutton said. “We dug ourselves such a hole, it shouldn’t have to come down to the big shot. If we play better in the first half, we win that game by 10.”
Round 4 between the two SCC heavyweights would be March 17 in the Class LL state quarterfinals. Hillhouse is the No. 9 seed while Prep is No. 1.
Nolan finished with 15 points while center Paschal Chukwu had 18 points, 13 rebounds and seven blocks.
Returning to the lineup for Prep was sophomore guard Ryan Murphy. He suffered a high ankle sprain in the Jan. 4 win over Hillhouse. The doctors cleared him Wednesday. Murphy scored two points off the bench.
Shane Christie finished with 20 points, including 10 in the third quarter, to allow Hillhouse to have a chance to attempt the comeback.
FAIRFIELD PREP 56, HILLHOUSE 52
Hillhouset 7 16 13 16 — 52
Fairfield Prep 13 16 18 9 — 56
Shane Christie 7 5-11 20, Isaiah Lewis 4 0-0 11, Raiquan Clark 3 2-3 8, Troy Waters 2 2-2 7, Corey Barrett 2 0-0 5, Joe Kasperzyk 0 1-3 1, Dontell Glover 0 0-0 0, Ellis Goodlow 0 0-0 0, Wayne Whyth 0 0-0 0, Aaron White 0 0-0 0. Totals: 18 10-19 52
FAIRFIELD PREP (56)
Paschal Chukwu 7 4-8 18, Thomas Nolan 4 7-9 15, Keith Pettway 3 4-9 10, Ryan Foley 3 0-1 7, Ray Featherston 1 0-0 2, Ryan Murphy 1 0-0 2, David Zielinski 1 0-0 2. Totals: 20 15-27 56
3-point goals: Hillhouse 6 (Christie 1, Lewis 3, Waters 1, Barrett 1); Fairfield Prep 1 (Foley 1); Records: Hillhouse 23-0; Fairfield Prep 18-5
Notes: Paschal Chukwu added 13 rebounds, seven blocks, two assists and two steals. Thomas Nolan was named the MVP of the game for Prep.
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