Surviving and advancing

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Cardillo here. I’ve got a large Dunkin Donuts coffee, a toasted bagel and a Spotify playlist all queued up …  in other words lets talk a look around what happened in the league boys basketball quarterfinals on Saturday and maybe — maybe – peek ahead to the semifinals. Okay, we’re definitely going to look ahead to Tuesday.

St. Joseph avoids another quarterfinals  banana peel:

Johnny Dzurenda, left, and Jake Pelletier, right, have been important cogs for St. Joseph all season.

By now everybody knows St. Joseph has lost in the first round of the last two FCIAC tournaments as the top seed. Granted following those losses the Cadets went on to win the Class LL title each time.

First-year coach Chris Watts wasn’t thinking about what happened last year or the year before that standing outside the first-floor locker rooms at Fairfield Ludlowe late Saturday night after his team held off Greenwich 77-56.

For about 85 percent of the quarterfinal St. Joseph held Greenwich at arm’s length, but all of a sudden for a few minutes early in the fourth this turned into an actual game. The Cardinals cut the lead down to single digits and had a long 3-pointer not hit the back rim, who knows what would have happened?

Watts attributed this to the Cadets — up 20-ish to start the fourth — to a lack of focus, which is a fair assessment. On a couple trips down the floor on offense the Cadets simply started jacking up 3-pointers, which Watts said was “selfish.” Greenwich’s run also came with St. Joseph point guard Raekwon Reid out of the game for what looked like a cramp, so there’s that to consider, too.

In the end, St. Joseph is simply a lot better than Greenwich and the Cadets were able quickly reestablish their 20-point advantage, mainly by giving the ball to Quincy McKnight – who the Cardinals couldn’t guard 1-on-1. Like most good scorers at any level of ball, McKnight made his bread at the line, scoring 11 of his game-high 24 from the stripe.  (He also got a visit from an assistant coach from Quinnipiac afterward.)

The win sets up a semifinal against No. 4 Central — which handled No. 5 Ridgefield 72-56 — Tuesday at Fairfield Warde. (Wilton plays Trinity Catholic in the first game at 6 p.m.)

Lots of storylines abound for this one, so take your pick.

Central upset St. Joseph as the No. 8 seed in last year’s quarterfinals — handing the Cadets their only defeat of the season. St. Joseph repaid the favor earlier this month, winning 85-81 in Trumbull in what was really a terrific game and had the Vito Montelli Court rocking from the tip-off.

The fact a lot of the St. Joseph players are from Bridgeport and grew up playing with the Central guys — McKnight says he and Central point guard Tyler Ancrum helped teach each other the game — means emotions should run high.

Watts and St. Joseph would be wise to study the Central game tape. Yes, McKnight posted a career-high 31 points in the game, but the key here was the Cadets were up 15 in the second quarter and looked ready to break the game open into a rout. Except that the Hilltoppers never quit and battled back. They could easily have won the game by the time the fourth quarter rolled around had they been able to covert a put-back scramble under the hoop in the late goings.

With Ancrum running the show, the Hilltoppers can match the Cadets full-court pressure on both ends, something Greenwich couldn’t. Central doesn’t have overwhelming size to exploit St. Joseph, but ShaQuan Bretoux and Marcus Blackwell will create difficult matchups in the halfcourt for the Cadets.

One other thing to watch for on Tuesday is how closely the game is called. St. Joseph, due to the way it plays defense, flying all over the court and creating traps — as well as hand-checking — could get into foul trouble. McKnight had two quick ones in the first quarter vs. Greenwich, but it wasn’t an issue — and the Cards were poor from the line. From the sideline you could heard Watts yelling out to his team, “play defense with your feet.” He later said his team gets into trouble when guys get too aggressive, trying to jump passing lanes for steals which lead to run-outs.

Last thought here and something I’m sure Central coach Barry McLeod will be thinking about the next couple days: how much legs will the Hilltoppers have?

After losing to St. Joseph on Feb. 7, Central went eight days without a game due to the blizzard that hit Bridgeport the next day. Since Feb. 15 Central has played six games in nine days, which is brutal for a team that goes only about eight deep. Although Central’s not going to complain since they’ve won all six games.

Chalk Holds in SWC

I’ll refrain from tooting my own horn here, but the quarterfinals of the SWC went pretty much according to script, which my quick preview capsule on Friday predicted. (Granted, this wasn’t going on a limb like taking a No. 15 seed over a No. 2 in March Madness brackets.)

The first two quarterfinals saw No. 3 ND-Fairfield take care of Masuk, 73-61, while No. 2 Bethel built an 18-point halftime lead to beat Weston 58-40. It sets up a very nice semifinal opener on Tuesday at Newtown between the Wildcats and Lancers — winners of seven straight.

Call this the battle of the Dans (or Dannys, or Daniels) with the Lancers’ Dan Upchurch squaring off with the Wildcats’ Dan Garvin. (Actaully, he seems to prefer Daniel, but you get the point.) Both haven been lighting it up all season and each are a threat to put up a 30-point game in the semis. You wouldn’t exactly label Upchurch with the “most-improved” tag considering he’s been a star player since his freshman year, but for whatever the reason he’s taken his game to the next level as a senior and simply flat-out puts the ball through the hoop.

For more about Garvin, I’ll point you in the direction of Chris Brodeur’s feature from Sunday’s News-Times.

So naturally that means this one probably comes down to the supporting cast, right? (Isn’t that how games like this always work?)

“We’re happy to play anybody. Since it’s Bethel up at Newotwn, we’re going to show up,” Lancers’ coach Vin Laczkoski said Saturday. ”They have lots of seniors. They’re very savvy. Then again, we’re not too shabby ourselves.”

Tuesday’s nightcap will feature No. 4 Kolbe Cathedral vs. No. 1 Bunnell, a rematch of a game from Feb. 6 won 72-71 by the Bulldogs. (More on that in a sec.)

I covered the Kolbe’s win over Stratford, which was about as even a game as you’re going to find, befitting the 4-5 matchup.

Bunnell struggled all game vs. No. 8 Newtown, trailing after three quarters. Big-game jitters? An off-night? Hard to say, but both Matt Nolting and Issac Vann were held to 12 points — about 10 off their season averages, so Newtown does deserve credit for holding the duo in check when nobody’s been able to do that all season.

The Bulldogs aren’t going to be able to get away with a game like that against a revenge-minded Kolbe, in particular Ian Gardner who missed a pair of free throws at the end of their regular season matchup.

“That’s the team we want,” Gardner said Saturday after beating Stratford.

Sometimes the SWC gets overshadowed, but these are two excellent semifinals matchups and worth making the drive to Newtown to watch.

Bounce Passes:

* Kolbe Cathedral coach Chris Smith is a delight on the sidelines since he displays the same emotion that helped him become the all-time leading scorer in UConn basketball history. Jim Calhoun would certainly be proud. In the fourth quarter vs. Stratford a Kolbe player drew a technical, which (as you’d imagine) didn’t sit well with Smith. A little later someone in the crowd hurled a question at Smith along the lines if he liked that call? Smith responded to the fan (with a smile, mind), prompting audible laughter from anyone in the crowd within earshot.

* Bunnell senior guard Tim White, who coach Pat Yerina calls his defensive stopper, was in street clothes due to a back issue. He said he expects to play Tuesday.

* “Mr. Fairfield” Pat Pickens has his SCC tournament breakdown on the blog, so go read that. Good job by Fairfield Prep beating Career three times in one season — cliche alert — which never easy to do. I’ll see be shocked if it’s not Prep and Hillhouse Tuesday night in the final.

* Basketball seems to bring out a lot more camaraderie than the other high school sports, since come tournament time you’ll see players from the other teams in the region go watch their rivals play. It doesn’t hurt, either, that basketball is — by far — the most watchable high school sport.

With that in mind, it’s too bad the FCIAC and SWC finals are both on Thursday at the same time. The girls final for the leagues were broken up, with the FCIAC on Thursday and the SWC on Friday. Not sure why this couldn’t be arranged for the boys games, allowing players and fans to attend both finals. (The SCC final bumps up with both league’s semifinals, but that’s due to its limited window to play its championship at Quinnipiac. You know SCC commish Al Carbone has likely gone over every scenario in order to maximize eyeballs on his league final.)

The FCIAC (assuming its officials even know the SWC exists)  probably wouldn’t move from its Thursday night game at Warde, so the onus would be on the SWC to slide over to Friday. The state tournament doesn’t start for boys until the following Monday, so the participating teams would still get two days of rest before it tips off.

Probably a pipe dream, but it would be a nice boost to the region’s hoop fans.

* If you haven’t read the New York Times piece on Vito Montelli, it’s worth checking out, not just because it features Joe Morelli quoted toward the end. There are some well-placed swipes at the CIAC’s narrow-minded attitude toward high school sports.

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