TRUMBULL -- Do not be fooled by the final 11-point margin.
Last Monday night, the New Canaan boys basketball team (3-13, 3-11 FCIAC) gave St. Joseph's (9-8, 8-7) all it could handle before suffering a 62-51 loss that officially eliminated them from the state tournament.
Zach Allen finished with 14 points for New Canaan, which had the Cadets scrambling with 51 seconds left in the third quarter, when the Rams built a five-point lead. Kyle Smith added nine points, while Claude Chandonnet and Paul Hagopian chipped in with eight and seven respectively for New Canaan.
"I'm really proud of the guys," said Rams coach Mike Evans. "We took this team to the wire. We were up 40-35 at a point, and we're not used to that, which is another tough thing to deal with."
Before the quarter ended, however, the Rams allowed two layups --including one which was converted into a three-point play--that enabled the Cadets to pull even at 40 points apiece. Arkel Ager-Lamar then scored all seven of St. Joseph's points during a key 7-1 run that staked the Cadets a six-point lead with 5:47 remaining.
Once behind, the Rams got themselves into foul trouble, and their hosts took full advantage at the free throw line. St. Joseph's scored all of its final 15 points via free throws, sinking all but three of its 18 attempts in the fourth quarter. Ager-Lamar and John Dzurenda each collected 13 points to pace the Cadets, who posted their fifth straight win. St. Joseph's appeared ready to seize control early, when it jumped out to a 7-0 lead just over a minute into the contest.
But New Canaan maintained its composure, stayed patient on offense and dictated a slower tempo in order to limit possessions. While the Rams didn't take many shots over the first half, they did shoot a remarkable 71 percent (10-of-14).
Evans knew he would have to play a game in the 40s or 50s to have a chance at springing a road upset, and it was only because of free throws at the end that St. Joseph even surpassed 60 points.
"What the guys saw was that they could chip away at that lead with what we planned, and they stuck to the plan, which is what we needed," Evans said. "We need mental endurance more than physical endurance in this game, especially when you're 3-12."
"You go against an opponent like St. Joseph's and you're not mentally tough, it's going to end pretty soon, before the first quarter is over."
New Canaan pulled to within three points after the first quarter on Andrew Penchuk's pair of free throws with five seconds left.
The Cadets responded by building the lead back up to 24-17 with 3:47 left in the half, but the Rams closed the gap to 30-29 at intermission on a Hagopian baseline jumper with seven seconds remaining.
After two lead changes in the third quarter, Penchuk's tip-in sparked a 6-0 run that handed the Rams their 40-35 lead. From there, New Canaan made just 3-of-12 shot attempts in the fourth period to finish at 49 percent (18-of-37) for the game.
The Rams will next host Stamford on Wednesday (7 p.m.) and then play at Darien on Thursday (7 p.m.)
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