By PHIL BRODSKY
Orange Live Sports Writer
For three periods of Tuesday night’s Southern Connecticut Conference inter-divisional contest with Fairfield Prep (19-1 and the state’s top-ranked team) Amity’s upset-minded cagers were thinking the unthinkable and doing the undoable—defeating the Jesuits. The Spartans held a 13-11 lead after the first period. Dave Zelinski’s buzzer-beating three pointer enabled Prep to walk off in a 24-24 halftime deadlock. After falling behind by as much as six points (36-30) Amity clawed back within three points (44-41) heading into the final session. At that point, the Spartans had the same misfortune as Chicken Little—the sky fell in on them. Outscoring Amity 17-5 down the stretch, Fairfield Prep closed out the regular season with a 61-46 come-from-behind win that was far closer than the final score would indicate. This was Amity’s final home appearance of the regular season. Its’ regular season comes to a close Thursday with a 7 p.m. visit to Hand High of Madison.
According to Assistant Coach Mike Cofrancesco (who temporarily took over for Head Coach Jeff Nielsen when his mother passed away earlier in the week), “We had played so hard for three quarters. By the start of the fourth quarter, we were gassed. Once they got the lead, we had to chase their guards. It was tough to do that. It finished us off. Even though we lost, I was happy with our effort. We refused to back down.”
The Jesuits feature their highly publicized 7-foot 1-inch junior Nigerian exchange student, Paschal Chukwu, who ended up with 14 points, 14 rebounds, and four blocked shots.
“In our first game with Prep, we never got any good shots and trailed 15-3 at the end of the first quarter,” Cofrancesco said. “This time, we knew the first quarter would be very important. Remi Farrell got amped up, took on the challenge, and did a great job denying their big guy the ball. In addition, we had our guards double up on him when he tried to dribble the ball and get into position to score. Our game plan was to surround him, crowd him, and make things uncomfortable, but he is so big and its’ tough to control him once he makes his move.”
With 5 minutes, 43 seconds left in the third quarter, Prep’s 5-11 guard Tom Nolan scored on a put-back to put his team on top 30-28. During the next 2:44, he would bag home another trio of driving lay-ups along with a mid-range jumper to give his team a 38-32 lead.
Down but not out, Amity (now 14-5) rebounded to score nine of the next 11 points and grab a 41-40 lead on a trio of Adam LeVine’s free throws, a short pop by Farrell, and back-to-back jump shots by Zac Campbell and Alex Tumeniuk. In the final eight seconds of the hectic third quarter, freshman guard Ryan Murphy cashed in a lay-up to put the Jesuits back on top, 42-41. Amity unloaded a long in-bound pass that was picked off by Chukwu. He quickly fed the ball to speedy Keith Pettway, who raced in to score at the buzzer.
Leading by three points (44-41) at the outset of the final quarter, Fairfield Prep soon extended their advantage to eight points as Pettway swished a three-ball and Nolan (who scored 16 of his 18 points during the second half) netted a jumper. From that point on, the Jesuits gradually extended their lead and iced their 19th win of the winter.
Cofrancesco added, “Those two quick scores at the end of the third quarter were followed by those back-to-back jumpers at the start of the fourth quarter were huge, as suddenly they were up by eight points. They won the game at the end. That’s what good teams are supposed to do.”
With Amity’s defense sagging in around Chukwu, there were numerous outside shooting opportunities for the Jesuits but they could not capitalize on most of them. While Amity connected on five of its nine first quarter shots, Prep hit on only 5 of 15 and two of those were powerful tomahawk slam dunks by Chukwu. Farrell’s put back gave Amity a 13-11 lead with 20 seconds to go in the first quarter.
Things got no better for Fairfield Prep in the second quarter. Consecutive pop shots by Farrell and Matt Lettick in the first minute of the second session enabled the Spartans to jump ahead 17-11. The Jesuits crept back within three points (19-16) when Ryan Murphy tossed in a pair of freebies with 3:50 left on the clock. Ryan drained a three ball at 3:30 to make it 22-16 but another Chukwu slam jam at 2:49 cut Prep’s deficit to four points (22-18). Tumeniuk drove the lane at 1:54 but that would be Amity’s final points of the first half. Its’ swishing his six point lead melted away with Murphy canning three more charity tosses and Zelinski’s game tying shot from beyond the arc at the buzzer.
Prep connected on only eight of its 25 shots in the first half (31%) and also missed half of its 14 foul shots. Amity was good on 10 of 25 from the floor (40%) in the first half. It was a far different story in the second half. Led by Nolan, the winners were good on 18 of 31 down the stretch (58%) and 26 of 55 (47%) for the night. In addition to Nolan and Chukwu hitting twin digits, Murphy also scored 13 points for the winners.
The Spartans (who only recorded one field goal and five points in the fourth quarter) were good on nine of its 25 second half shots (36%) and 19 of 50 (38%) for the game. While Farrell had an outstanding two-way effort, Campbell (who averages 18) only scored three points. Each team grabbed 32 rebounds. Lettick hauled in eight caroms and Farrell hauled seven for the Spartans. Each team also recorded 10 turnovers.
Acknowledging that Nolan (18 points and seven rebounds) had really hurt his team in the second half, Cofrancesco said, “He’s a good player. We were focusing on stopping their big guy but that resulted in some outside shots being left open and Prep began to hit them in the second half.”
NOTES: Chukwu and sophomore guard Ray Featherstone (son of Chukwu’s host family in the USA) both attended Trinity Catholic last year but transferred to Fairfield Prep during the off-season.
The Jesuits have the rare distinction of being currently ranked No. 1 in the state both in boys’ basketball and boys’ hockey.