Boys basketball: Wilton takes down first-place Ridgefield, 73-67

The last time the Wilton and Ridgefield boys basketball teams squared off it was for the FCIAC championship and the game went into double overtime until Ridgefield came away as conference champs.

That game had numerous lead changes and emotional swings, with both teams’ student bodies supplying a ton of energy.

Not as much was at stake on Tuesday night when the two rivals met at the Zeoli Fieldhouse —  but it was still Ridgefield versus Wilton, which always brings out a crowd and where records don’t mean anything.

The Tigers entered the game a perfect 9-0 in the conference (10-2 overall) and were holding the top seed for the FCIAC playoffs.

Wilton had lost two of its last three games and was struggling on offense.

But on Tuesday, the Warriors overcame an early deficit and held on for 73-67 victory in an exciting game, improving to 9-4 overall and 7-3 in the FCIAC.

Seniors Antonio Brancato and Scott Cunningham supplied the one-two punch for the Warrior offense to lead the team to victory. Brancato finished with a game-high 33 points, while Cunningham put in 24 points.

Cunningham had the hot hand in the first half with 17 of his points to put Wilton on top. Brancato caught fire in the second half, scoring 23 points in the half to grow the lead and then to preserve the win.

Brancato, who transferred to Wilton this season from Fairfield Warde and was in the stands for last year’s FCIAC championship game, was asked how the Wilton/Ridgefield rivalry compared to the Fairfield Ludlowe/Warde rival games.

“This rivalry is way more intense then the Fairfield teams and it was fun to play in,” said Brancato. “I saw the emotion in last year’s game and I am glad to be part of a game like this.”

Brancato, who got off to a slow start with the team nursing an injury and adjusting to the Wilton style of basketball, has stepped up his game the last two times out and on Tuesday he read the defense and made the plays for the Warriors.

“I came out and played aggressive and picked up two early fouls. But when I got back in the game I still played aggressive, and when they switched on defense I went right at their bigs driving to the basket. And when I kept getting a step on my defender, I just kept attacking.”

When Brancato drove to the hoop and didn’t get the bucket, he ended up at the foul line, where he was 11-for-13 on the night.

The Warriors came out in a three-two zone on defense and got off to slow start on offense. Wilton committed three early turnovers and found themselves down 16-6. Wilton head coach Joel Geriak called a time-out to let his troops regroup and it paid off big time.

Brancato drained a 3-pointer right after the time-out and sent the Warriors on a 9-2 run to close the first quarter only down by three, 18-15.

Brancato’s drive to the basket for two and a 3-pointer from Cunningham to open the second quarter gave Wilton its first lead of the game at 20-18. The game was tied twice and the lead changed three times before the Warriors ended the first half with an 11-2 run for a 34-26 halftime lead.

Ridgefield knocked down two quick baskets to start the third quarter, but Cunningham and Brancato answered right back. The Tigers wouldn’t get any closer in the period, as the Warrior lead grew to 12 points, 54-42, at the end of the third quarter. Nick Kronenberg drained two 3-pointers from the corner late in the period.

Ridgefield opened the final quarter with a bucket, before Cunningham hit a step-back jumper to maintain the 12-point lead.

But then the Tigers started chipping away at the lead and drew to within four at 58-54 with 5:16 to play.  Again, baskets by Brancato and Cunningham upped the lead back to eight points, but Ridgefield stormed back to get the lead back to four with 3:42 left at 63-59.

Ridgefield got the Warrior lead to two points at 69-67 with 41.6 second to play, but the home team would shut out the Tigers rest of the way, while a basket and a foul shot from Brancato and a foul shot from Kyle Phillips iced the game. Brancato scored 10 of the Warrior final 11 points.

“Brancato has stepped up for us the last two games. It took him awhile to settle into the way we play and he’s now got it and playing with confidence and we all know what confidence does for a player,” said Geriak. “Brancato has a quick first step and we told him to attack the rim and he throttled our offense tonight.”

He continued, “We came out in a zone defense, but then we switched to man-to-man which helped us in boxing out under the boards and got us to play more uptempo on offense. We knocked down a bunch of ‘threes’ tonight, but I didn’t want to keep relying on that, knowing that we could get the rim.”

In addition to Brancato’s 33 points and Cunningham’s 24, Kronenberg finished with six points, Kyle Maatallah and Phillips had four points each, and Ryan Schriber added two points.

James St. Pierre led the Tigers with 30 points.