Warriors outlast Crosby to reach Class L semifinals

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With the threat of a huge winter storm on the horizon and on everybody’s mind, the Wilton High boys basketball team made you put it out of your thoughts and delivered a blizzard of a different kind inside the Zeoli Fieldhouse on Monday night.

The sixth-seeded Warriors stormed ahead in the second half and come away with an exciting 65-61 win over the 14th-seeded Crosby Bulldogs of Waterbury to advance to the Class L semifinal round of the state tournament.

Wilton will now square off against the second-seeded Notre Dame-Fairfield (21-2) on Wednesday, weather permitting, at Fairfield Warde High School. Tip-off time is at 7

“I couldn’t be any more excited for these kids and what they have achieved. This again was a great team win, with several players coming up big with plays at key moments of the game,” said Wilton head coach Joel Geriak. “We knew they were big, fast and more athletic than us, but that hasn’t stopped this team in the past. If we go out and play our game, I know we have a shot at winning. This team has shown time and time again that they are not afraid or intimidated by any opponent.

He continued, “Our game plan was to try to slow them down and keep them off the offensive boards. We went out and executed our game, which took them out of their game and caused them to be off tonight. Even though we are small all around, we demonstrated good boxing-out skills and position. The fact that this team doesn’t have a conference championship banner this year has helped them bear down more to get to the state finals.”

Crosby came into Monday night’s match averaging 79 points per game this season and their top scorer, Jeremiah Kendall, was averaging almost 29 points per game and had seven games this season when he scored 40 or better. Crosby also had a big starting line-up with four starters coming in at 6’3” or taller. All these factors made it feel like the home-team Warriors were going into the game as underdogs — but never underestimate the heart of the Wilton team, who has matched up and beaten teams with the Bulldogs’ height and high-scoring offense.  In the Bulldogs seven losses this year, they only averaged 63 points per game.

Crosby scored first, but Wilton answered right back on its first possession with a 3-pointer by Kyle Maatallah, for the 3-2 lead. The Bulldogs then went on a 10-0 run for a 12-3 lead midway through the first quarter. Down nine, the Warriors came back with a  9-0 run to tie the game at 12-12 with 2:26 to play in the period. But the visitors closed out the quarter on a 8-2 run for a 20-14 lead after one.

A Scott Cunningham 3-pointer to open the second quarter got the Warriors to within three. Crosby held the lead for the entire second quarter until a steal by Matt Kronenberg, who laid it in for two as the buzzer sounded, giving Wilton a 28-27 halftime lead. Crosby’s Kendall was forced to the bench early in the period with two personal fouls

“I told the team at halftime that this could be the seniors’ last 16 minutes of their high school careers and it was up to them to define how it was going to end,” said Geriak.

The Warriors took to heart what the coach said and opened the third quarter with an 8-0 run. A 3-pointer and a two-point bucket by Maatallah was followed by a 3-pointer by Sean Breslin and the Warriors quickly had a 36-27 lead. The Bulldogs got their first bucket with 5:23 left in the period, but with 4:50 left Kendall was hit with an offensive foul, his fourth or the game, and again retreated to the bench. Wilton got its lead to as much as 10 points twice in the period and held a 47-40 lead going into the final quarter.

“I told the kids that with their foul trouble that they would probably come out in a 2-3 zone and that’s just what they did and it played right into our hands and we were able to increase our lead,” said Geriak.

Crosby began the fourth quarter with a bucket by Kendall and a 3-pointer by Miguel Rivera to pull to within two points, 47-45. A fast-break basket by Maatallah extended the Warriors lead back to four, 49-45. The Bulldogs knocked down two more 3-pointers to tie the game at 51-51 with 4:43 to play.

Drew Connolly found Robbie Hermann all alone under the basket and Herman laid it in for two, putting Wilton up 53-51. The lead changed hands seven times over the next four minutes, with the Bulldogs holding the lead at 61-60 with under a minute to play.

A missed shot attempt by Wilton turned into one of those key Warrior moments of heart and hustle. After a Wilton miss, Hermann out-battled a Bulldog player for the offensive rebound, ripping the ball away from him. He kicked the ball out to the corner to Connolly, who drained an open 3-pointer for a 63-61 lead with 42 seconds left — for what proved to be the game winner.

Matt Kronenberg iced the game with two free throws with 8.4 second left in the game and the 65-61 final.

Matt Kronenberg led the Warriors with 16 points. Maatallah scored 15 points and Breslin hit for 11 points, while Connolly and Nick Kronenberg had 8 points each.

Both teams knocked down 12 3-pointers on the night, with Maatallah and Breslin leading the way for Wilton with three each. Rivera, who drained six 3-pointers for the Bulldogs, finished with a game-high 18 points. Kendall was held to 13 points.

Maatallah, who was in the starting lineup as Geriak looked to generate offense, took the coach’s halftime message to heart and wanted his teammates and him to play more than just one more half of basketball.

“He told us, it’s now or never, and we didn’t want to leave anything on the court. I’m so happy that we are moving on. We feel if we play our game and set the tempo we have a good chance of coming away with a win,” said Maatallah.