Still stinging from the the disappointment of failing to qualify for the FCIAC playoffs, the Wilton High boys basketball team is making the most of its second season.
The 13th-seeded Warriors advanced to the Division II state quarterfinals with a gritty 63-56 win at fourth-seeded Bristol Central on Friday night. They play the winner of Saturday’s Pomperaug vs. Newtown game on Monday night, looking to make the state semifinals for the second year in a row.
The Warriors (15-7) controlled Friday’s game for three quarters, taking a 42-33 lead into the final period.
The Rams (18-6) opened the fourth quarter with a 14-0 run, taking a 47-42 lead with 3:40 left when Isaiah Miller drained his fourth 3-pointer of the second half.
The lead was 52-48 with two minutes left when a Scott Cunningham 3-pointer started a 7-0 Wilton run. After Kyle Hyzy drew a charge, Antonio Brancato scored on a drive to put Wilton in the lead for good, 53-52, with 1:40 left.
Wilton then hit eight straight free throws — four by Brancato and two each by Cunningham and Kyle Maatallah — to build a 61-53 lead with about 40 seconds left.
Jaekwon Spencer’s conventional three-point play cut the lead to 61-56, but the Warriors closed out the win with two more free throws in the final 17 seconds.
Head coach Joel Geriak said missing out on FCIACs has definitely motivated the Warriors in the state tournament.
“They have a chip on their shoulder right now,” he said. “They’re finally playing like the team I thought we’d be, and it’s fun to watch right now. Our last two games have been our best two games of the year so far.”
“It feels great. We have a lot to prove still, so it’s great to still be in this,” said Brancato, who had an outstanding game running the offense, finishing with 28 points. “I think we’re peaking at the best time. Against Norwalk (a 74-53 first-round win) we said that was our best team game of the year, and we came out and probably topped that one. So we’ve just got to keeping going.”
Wilton’s senior guards — Brancato, Cunningham (22 points) and Maatallah (12 points) — accounted for 62 of the team’s 63 points.
For three quarters, Wilton’s 2-3 zone did a very good job frustrating the Rams, who were only 5-for-15 from the floor with 12 turnovers in the first half.
On offense the Warriors spread the floor, set picks and let the guards slash to the basket, which they did with great success. Brancato scored 13 points in the first quarter, mostly by finding seams and taking the ball to the hoop.
Bristol Central began to find its offense in the third quarter, and eliminated the turnovers, and scored more points in the period (18) than it did in the first half. Miller dropped in two 3-pointers and Spencer, the Rams’ top player who was held to three points in the first half, began to take over in the paint with 11 third-quarter points.
But the Wilton lead never got under seven points, as Cunningham hit a pair of 3-pointers and Maatallah had one trey. Cunningham’s layup, on a fast break off a Brancato feed, make it 42-33 after three.
It took the Rams only three minutes to erase the lead, with Miller’s 3-pointer, Spencer’s fast-break bucket, an inside shot by Alex Bernier and Spencer’s drive tying the game, 42-42. Two free throws by Spencer and another 3-pointer by Miller gave the Rams a 47-42 lead with 4:39 left to play.
Brancato, who had sat out the early part of the fourth quarter with an ankle injury, came back in and got Wilton going again with a driving layup, resulting in a three-point play to make it 47-45.
Cunningham’s drive cut the gap to 49-48, before Spencer’s post move resulted in a conventional three-point play and a 52-48 lead for the Rams.
But the Warriors came up with the game’s last run, and it proved to be decisive.
“We came back and battled. The main thing is we made some big foul shots down the stretch to put the game away, because they could have easily won the game,” said Geriak.
“We said, now we’re in their shoes,” said Brancato of the early fourth quarter when Central grabbed the lead. “We were up nine or 10 the whole game, and then they went on that run. We said hey we can do that, too, and we punched right back.”
Spencer had a huge second half and finished with a game-high 29 points and nine rebounds for the Rams, while Miller had 12 points.
Wilton 63, Bristol Central 56
Antonio Brancato 9 9-9 28; Kyle Maatallah 4 3-4 12; Kyle Shifrin 0 1-4 1; Scott Cunningham 6 6-8 22; Kyle Hyzy 0 0-0 0; Kyle Phillips 0 0-0 0; Nick Kronenberg 0 0-0 0; Robert Hermann 0 0-0 0; Tucker Walden 0 0-0 0; Ryan Schriber 0 0-0 0; TOTAL — 19 19-26 63
Bristol Central (18-5)
Dathan Hickey 1 0-1 3; Isaiah Miller 4 0-0 12; Noah Plantamuro 1 0-0 3; Jaekwon Spencer 10 7-13 29; Alexander Lape 2 1-2 5; Alex Bernier 1 1-2 3; Justus Fitzpatrick 0 0-0 0; Ryan Rodriguez 0 1-2 1; TOTAL — 19 10-20 56.
Wilton 15 9 18 21 63
Bristol Central 9 6 18 23 56
3-pointers: Wilton — Cunningham (4), Brancato, Maatallah; Bristol Central — Miller (4), Spencer (2), Hickey, Plantamuro.
Notes: Cunningham had a team-high six rebounds. Hyzy had five rebounds and Maatallah four rebounds. Brancato had three assists.