Boys basketball: Warriors rally to beat Warde in battle of unbeatens

The shirts the handed out before Thursday night’s game to the hometown crowd said 'heart over hype'.

And after the Wilton High boys basketball team erased a first half 15-point deficit to come away with a thrilling 75-65 victory over the Fairfield Warde Mustangs at the Zeoli Fieldhouse, you could add hustle to the shirt slogan.

And while they might not rhyme, you could also add determination, drive and teamwork to the shirt.

The Warriors used all those attributes to remain unbeaten on season, sending the Mustangs back to Fairfield with their first loss of the season.

Wilton is now 9-0 overall, 6-0 in the FCIAC, while the Warde record stands at 9-1 overall, 5-1 in the conference.

The game’s action and play lived up to pre-game hype of two undefeated teams doing battle in a conference match. Both teams play an uptempo style game, have been besting their opponents each game by about 20 or more points, and both play well on the defensive end.

In the end it was the Wilton defense that held the Mustangs to their second lowest offensive effort this season and the Warrior offense scored right on their season average, coming away with the second-most points scored against Warde.

The Mustangs started the horse race by opening the game on a 8-0 run. Marcel Parsons drained a long 3-pointer to get things going for Warde and Sean Conway hit another three for the quick lead. Matt Kronenberg drove the lane to finally get Wilton its first points with just under six minutes left in the first quarter. A Jack Williams bucket got the Warriors to within one point at 13-12, but Parsons hit another three late in the period. Warde led 22-16 after one quarter.

The Mustangs began the second quarter with another run, this time a 9-0 run for their biggest lead of the contest at 31-16. Kyle Shifrin got Wilton’s first points of the period, going three-for-four from the foul line to stop the Mustang run. But the Warriors couldn’t get any closer than eight points and went into the halftime break down 10, 41-31.

Parsons had the hot hand for the visitors, knocking down four 3-pointers in the first half.

“We came out a little slow and didn’t play well on defense,” said Matt Kronenberg about his team’s first-half effort. “We played unsettled and didn’t stick to the game. We gave them too many second chances for points on the defensive end and didn’t crash the boards on the offensive end.”

Wilton head coach Joel Geriak did exactly what a head coach is supposed do at halftime — point out to his team what they did wrong and what they were going to do in the second half to fix it.

“I told them that they weren’t attacking like they normally do and they weren’t closing down the gaps on defense,” said Geriak.

The Warriors came out in the second half a different team, outscoring Warde 19-8 in the third quarter to take their first lead of the game at 50-49 into the final eight minutes of play.

A Robbie Hermann block, that excited the crowd, started a fast break for the home team and Williams pulled up for a 3-pointer and hit nothing but the bottom of the net, setting crowd into frenzy, cutting the lead to 46-44.

Matt Kronenberg (eight points) and Williams (seven points) were the only two Warriors to pick up points to tie the score at 46-46 with just under two minutes remaining in the third.

A 3-pointer by Giacomo Biancato put the Mustangs back up 49-46, but two late lay-in baskets by Hermann put the Warriors ahead for good. Herman went off glass for his buckets on feeds from his teammates, who penetrated into the lane and dished off to an open Hermann.

Wilton upped its lead to 57-52 when Matt Kronenberg and William showed great hustle to pick up a loose ball and get it to Hermann for another bucket.

Wilton had its biggest lead of the game, 65-52, midway through the final quarter.

Warde closed to within six at 71-65, but Matt Kronenberg and Kyle Maatallah both went two-for-two from the free throw line to seal the deal.

“This was a huge win for us. We knew we had to come out in the second half and cut down on our turnovers, talk on defense, and play smarter. Tonight was another example that our hard work and conditioning paid off in a win,” said Kronenberg. “The ‘Tribe’ (student section) helps motivate us and get us going and they showed great support tonight.”

Matt Kronenberg led the Warriors with 16 points, followed by Williams with 15 points, Maatallah with 13 points and Connolly with nine points.

But one of the things Geriak talked about in the post-game interview were his players who don’t post big numbers on the stat sheet.

“I got guys like Shifrin and Jack Wood who work their tails off the entire game, don’t care about scoring. They hustle on both ends of the floor to either keep an offensive possession going or come up with a key stop on defense,” he said. “Being able to go 11 deep on the bench gives us fresh bodies late in the game. You could clearly see that Warde had tired legs in the second half as they struggled on their outside shooting”.

He continued, “We know that since we are still undefeated is going to put a target on our back and be hunted, we just have to come out and play hard.”

Giacomo Brancato led all scorers with 20 points and is now is only three points shy of 1,000 for his high school career at Warde. Parsons added 14 points for Warde and Conway chipped in with 13 points.