FAIRFIELD — The atmosphere was electric, the intensity was impressive and the stakes were high when Fairfield Warde and Fairfield Ludlowe renewed their boys basketball rivalry for the third time this season Wednesday night, before a packed house at Warde High School.
It’s always an exciting game for the town of Fairfield when the Mustangs and Falcons duel, but Wednesday’s matchup was especially significant, with a berth in the state tournament quarterfinals up for grabs.
And like the previous two meetings this winter, the Mustangs had the final say.
Senior guard Matt Houghton scored a team-high 15 points and senior forward Matt Becker added 14 points to lead eighth-seeded Warde to a well-earned 49-45 win over 24th-seeded Ludlowe in the Round of 16 of the CIAC Division II Tournament.
The Mustangs (15-8) advanced to Friday’s 7 p.m. Division II quarterfinal round, where they will visit top-seeded Waterford (21-1).
“Being a senior and being a part of this team for four years, there is no better feeling than advancing to the quarterfinals of the tournament,” said Houghton, whose 15 points came off five 3-pointers. “This is the first time our team has made it this far in a long time, so it feels awesome.”
Freshman forward Jordyn Davis contributed nine key points and added strong defensive play for Warde, which led 23-21 at halftime and 35-31 following the third quarter.
“In my coaching experience here, this is the first time we’ve made it to the state quarterfinals,” Warde coach Ryan Swaller said. “The last two years, we lost to Immaculate in this game — last year on the road. But we got two home games in the first two rounds, which was big deal for us. I don’t think we realized how important it is to be the home team.”
Warde’s student body, which filled their section of the stands, stormed the court in celebration following the win.
“Our fans were awesome, to play in front of a crowd like that was great, they were so important to us,” Houghton said.
Ludlowe, which held several leads early on in the back-and-forth battle, received 11 points apiece from junior James Bourque and senior Jeff Meyers. The Falcons, who defeated Cheshire in the tournament’s opening round on Tuesday, finished their season at 11-11.
“I’m super proud of our kids,” Ludlowe coach John Dailey said. “They came to work every day with a great attitude and I think tonight sums up the year that we had. They played hard and that’s all I could ask at the end of the day. We were right there at the end.”
A 3-pointer by junior Patrick Kilbride and a pull-up jumper from Meyers gave the Falcons a 26-23 lead with 5:50 remaining in the third quarter.
Houghton swished a 3-pointer from the left side, junior Joey Gulbin converted a layup and Houghton made another shot from beyond the arc, putting the Mustangs in front for good at 31-26 at the 2:45 mark of the third quarter.
Meyers’ 3-pointer and Bourque’s layup cut the Mustangs’ advantage to two points at 33-31 and 35-33, but the home team went on a pivotal 8-0 run to seize a 10-point fourth quarter lead.
Becker made a short jump shot, Davis swished a 3-pointer from the right corner and Meyers converted a 3-point shot, giving Warde its biggest lead at 43-33 with 3:51 to go in the final quarter.
“Late in the fourth quarter, we made two or three defensive stops and hit some big shots to build our lead,” Swaller said. “Jordyn (Davis) had a big game for us. We ask him to focus on defense a lot and he’s been doing that. Defensively, he made some good plays throughout the game and he made that big three and some free throws. I’m proud of him for taking that next step.”
Senior forward Christian Peterson nailed a 3-pointer from the left corner, bringing Ludlowe to within 47-41 with 1:29 left in the fourth quarter, but the Mustangs improved their record to 3-0 this season against the Falcons. Like the two earlier games between the rivals, Wednesday’s game was a defensive-minded matchup.
“We wanted to take it to them and I thought we did, we were physical,” said Dailey, whose squad, like Warde, played man-to-man defense throughout. “A couple of bounces our way and if we hit a couple of shots, it’s maybe a different story. I give Warde a lot of credit, they’ve played good defense against us in all three games and they made it hard for us.”
A back-and-forth first half featuring several lead changes ended in a 13-13 tie. A 3-pointer by junior forward Ian Bentley from the top of the key and a basket by Peterson gave the Falcons an 11-6 lead with 3:43 remaining in the first quarter.
Houghton converted a pair of 3-pointers, the second of which came with 1:16 to go in the opening quarter, tying the score at 13-13.
Bourque scored from the low post, then made a reverse layup, putting Ludlowe on top, 17-15, at the 3:58 mark of the second quarter. Becker’s basket knotted the score at 17-17, and Kilbride’s jumper from the right elbow gave the Falcons a 19-17 edge with 2:50 left in the opening half.
The Mustangs scored the final six points of the first half, two of which came off free throws from junior guard Brendan McMahon, making it 23-21.
PLAYERS OF THE GAME
Houghton and Becker paced the Mustangs offensively.
“Matt Houghton has been doing this night in and night out,” Swaller said. “His energy, his leadership — he sparks us. Becker being 6-foot-6 and being able to play the the 1-to5, gives us flexibility to change defenses and offenses.”
“We won two games last season, so to come back and win 10 this season to make it to the Sweet 16 says a lot about our team,” Dailey said. “Our seniors were tremendous leaders all year long and they got Ludlowe basketball heading back in the right direction.”
Said Becker: We didn’t make a lot of shots, but defensively, we were strong throughout the game, which led us to the win. We have to continue to play good defense in the quarterfinals, which a game we’ve never made it to before.”