Boys basketball: St. Joseph rallies but falls to New Canaan

St. Joseph freshman Jason James (12) gets out in front of the Rams, including Alex Gibbens (5) and Ryan McAleer (10) during a boys basketball game at New Canaan High School on Feb. 13. — Dave Stewart/Hearst Connecticut Media photo

It’s been the theme of the New Canaan boys basketball team this season: Everyone plays a part.

That recipe for success was on display as every player seemed to have a big moment in the Rams’ 55-44 victory over the St. Joseph Cadets on Wednesday night at NCHS.

New Canaan, which has won seven of its last eight games, shows no signs of slowing down as the playoffs approach.

“That’s been every game — everyone contributes,” senior co-captain Jack Richardson said. “Every game there’s a new No. 1 scorer and that’s a characteristic of our team this year. That’s what makes our team so good is that if one kid isn’t playing well, someone else picks it up and we can win with that on any night.”

The Rams (14-4 overall, 10-4 FCIAC) weren’t at their best offensively, shooting just 1-for-16 from beyond the three-point arc, and scoring just eight points in the first quarter and 22 in the first half. But they made up for it with a staunch defensive effort that gave the Cadets (10-7, 8-6) fits.

“Offensively, we didn’t play well, but defensively I thought we played really well,” New Canaan head coach Danny Melzer said. “We stepped up and took a bunch of charges which I’m very proud of. When you win a game where you shoot 1-for-16 from three-point range, as a coach, you’ve got to be pretty happy with that.”

The Cadets, who had won nine of their first 12 games, have now lost three straight and four of five. They’re still in the FCIAC playoff hunt with two league games to play, but are in a dog fight for a spot.

“Every night is a grind,” St. Joseph head coach Kevin Wielk said. “There’s no nights off in the FCIAC. We’re right there and you can go from 2 to 10. This is a tough stretch of our schedule.”

New Canaan had three players score in double figures, with several Rams getting hot at different points in the game.

Senior co-captains Luke Rwambuya and Richardson each scored 10 points in the first half, accounting for 20 of New Canaan’s 22 points. Richardson finished with a team-high 13 points and Rwambuya had 12.

Junior Matt Brand scored 10 points, with six coming in the final four minutes when the Rams iced the game.

Junior Alex Gibbens had eight points, scoring the final bucket of the third quarter and New Canaan’s first six points of the fourth quarter.

“If you look at our minutes played, each game, the guy who played the most is different,” Melzer said. “There were games where Matt Brand played the whole game. There were games where Jack Richardson barely played because he was in foul trouble and tonight, he played the most minutes. Each night it’s somebody different. We didn’t shoot the ball well tonight but we had contributions on defense and attacking the rim.”

For the Cadets, senior co-captain Steve Paolini had a game-high 16 points, including 12 in the second half, and junior Paul Fabbri had 11 points, nine of which came in the second half.

“(The Rams) like to play slow, but we want to play fast,” Wielk said. “So we just tried to change the tempo and get it swinging the other way.”

A sloppy first quarter for both teams ended in an 8-8 tie, and New Canaan then moved ahead 22-19 by halftime.

The Rams maintained a small advantage in the third quarter and were up 34-31 when buckets from senior co-captain Ben Sarda, Brand and Gibbens boosted the lead to 40-31 heading to the fourth.

Hot shooting from Gibbens pushed New Canaan’s lead to 44-33 when St. Joseph rallied behind Paolini and Fabbri. Dan Tobin hit with 3:30 to play and the Cadets had closed the gap to two at 46-44.

This time, the Rams turned to Brand for the scoring, as he hit a jumper and then took a sweet bounce pass from Rwambuya underneath and scored on a lay-up for a 50-44 lead. Another bucket from Brand and two free throws from Sarda put New Canaan up by 10 and locked down the win.

“It was staying together, getting the seniors together, and bringing it home,” Richardson said of the late surge. “We’ve been playing together for so long and we didn’t want our (senior) night to be spoiled. We didn’t let them do it. That showed in our defensive effort and the last three minutes of the game.”

For the Cadets, the last week is about righting the ship and securing a conference playoff bid.

“You can always be better,” Wielk said. “I just want one of those eight spots (in the FCIAC tournament) and then anything can happen. It’s just get in and it’s like the NCAA tournament. You never know what’s going to happen.”

PLAYERS OF THE GAME

Jack Richardson and Luke Rwambuya, New Canaan. There were plenty of big moments to go around for the Rams, but the two senior co-captains accounted for more than 90% of their team’s points in the first half. They also played key roles in a strong defensive team effort for New Canaan.

QUOTABLE

“It’s the FCIAC. Every game’s a grind and we’ll take it. It’s 14 wins this year, which is amazing, and hopefully we’ve got two more in us for the regular season.” — New Canaan head coach Danny Melzer

NEW CANAAN 55, ST. JOSEPH 44

St. Joseph (10-7, 8-6 FCIAC)

Steve Paolini 5 6-6 16, Dan Tobin 1 2-2 4, Paul Fabbri 4 1-4 11, Brendan Kade 1 0-0 3, Jason James 2 0-0 4, Kyren Jones 0 0-0 0, Will Diamantis 2 0-0 4, Tyler DuBose 1 0-0 2. Totals: 16 9-12 44

New Canaan (14-4, 10-4 FCIAC)

Ben Sarda 1 2-2 4, Luke Rwambuya 5 1-2 12, Conor West 0 0-0 0, Jack Richardson 6 1-2 13, Stephen Wronski 1 1-2 3, Matt Brand 5 0-0 10, Alex Gibbens 4 0-0 8, Ryan McAleer 2 1-1 5. Totals: 24 6-9 55

ST. JOSEPH 8 11 12 13 – 44

NEW CANAAN 8 14 18 15 – 55

3-Pointers: SJ – Fabbri 2, Kade; NC – Rwambuya