Those who watched the least climatic Prep Holiday Classic Final in recent memory also witnessed one of its most impressive performances in years.
Fairfield Prep, armed with arguably the state’s most dominant player — Paschal Chukwu — rolled rival ND on Friday night,
80-64. The Jesuits claimed their sixth Holiday Classic title in nine years.
“I thought our effort the entire game was terrific,” Prep coach Leo Redgate said.
Chukwu scored 20 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and had five blocks and was named the tournament’s most valuable player. The 7-foot Nigerian averaged 18 points-points-per game and is clearly not lacking confidence.
“(ND forward Kevin Laing) couldn’t stop me,” he said. “I still played my game.”
ND’s Dan Upchurch led all scorers with 24 and drew praise from his adversaries and allies after the game.
“He’s a phenomenal player,” Prep guard Thomas Nolan said. “He’s really hard to guard. We scouted him pretty well, and he still had a great game.”
“Danny Upchurch is one of the greatest guards I’ve ever had the chance to coach,” ND coach Vin Laczkoski said.
Though Chukwu dominated both sides, Prep is a more complete team than it was last year. When Terry Tarpey was not in the game, the Jesuits were lost. That’s not the case this year.
Four different Jesuits reached double-figure points, led by Prep’s other all-tournament selection, Tim Butala, who only had 17 points and 10 rebounds.
Butala, Nolan and point guard Keith Pettway’s improvements are noticeable. Nolan looks more comfortable as Prep’s off-guard and last night apparently found his shooting touch, hitting two 3-pointers.
Butala, who is 6-8, can play inside when Chukwu needs a break. Butala can play outside if the 7-footer is in.
“We have one of the biggest front-courts in the state,” Nolan said. “We are really taking advantage of that.”
Freshman Ryan Murphy is fearless and embodies the Jesuits’ tenacious attitude. They bookended the game with 24-point quarters– an impressive feat in its own right– and controlled pace in both the first and fourth. ND cut Prep’s lead to six, 58-52, midway through the third, but the Jesuits closed with a 22-11 run.
“I thought we protected the ball in the fourth quarter very well,” Redgate said. “They cut it to six, and we punched right back.”
Prep’s 6-0 and is looking awfully tough to beat. Jan. 8 against Career Magnet will be the Jesuits’ next test, then a week later the Jesuits will play Hillhouse.
“We have a hellacious schedule,” Redgate said. “But I love these games.”
What made Prep’s 16-point win more impressive is it came against arguably Class M’s best.
ND is no slouch. Though the Lancers fell to 3-2, Redgate realizes they’re a formidable team.
“I think Notre Dame is going to win their division in the state tournament,” Redgate said.
Laczkoski admitted Chukwu’s size was problematic for the severely undersized Lancers. Laing is ND’s biggest player and toughest defender, but got in foul trouble early guarding Chukwu.
“We’ve got (Earl) Coleman who is 5-10, Laing who is 6-3 1/2, (Jaylen Jennings) who is 6-3 and he’s 7-1,” Laczkoski said.
Coleman — who topped the 1,000-point mark with eight points Friday and was an all-tournament team member — is scuffling through an injury. But Jennings, CJ Davidson and ND’s deep bench appears able to pick up the slack.
Oh yeah, and that Upchurch kid isn’t bad either.
He may only be 6-foot, but as Laczkoski said, he is fearless and is a tenacious competitor.
“He has to be one of the best guards in the state,” Laczkoski said. “Think about playing his position and being double-teamed the whole game and keeping your composure and mental-toughness.”
If Coleman gets healthy, and ND’s role-players continue to play, the Lancers will be fine.
“We want to play our best in March,” Laczkoski said. “When you watch a bunch of kids who are outsized like that; we’re going to be pretty good down the road.”
I thought Warde would be the desperate team entering Friday’s consolation game.
Boy was I wrong.
Ryan Swaller apologized to me for his team’s performance after Ludlowe whitewashed the Mustangs 55-39 in Friday’s opener at Alumni Hall.
“It’s a total letdown in all aspects,” Swaller said. “It was a total disappointment. Just a lack of competitive spirit we had,
especially on the defensive end, but also selfishness we had at times. It’ll be addressed.”
Max Garrett, Warde’s lone all-tournament team member, led the Mustangs with 13 points.
Swaller clearly has the credentials to coach Warde– his 2004 UConn national championship ring proves that– but there’s something about Warde’s team that baffles me. The Mustangs scored 14 first-quarter points Friday, then could only muster 25 the rest of game.
It baffles Swaller too.
“We weren’t running our offense,” Swaller said. “We tried to get to the basket. I felt like we tried to do too much when we got to the basket.”
As I stated yesterday, Warde must now go 7-7 in its final 14 simply to reach the state playoffs. The Mustangs have played Bassick and Harding, but their next three are against Norwalk, Stamford and Danbury. Warde’s going to have to win any winnable game left to have a prayer at states, and Swaller told me that if it plays as it did Friday, the season will get long fast.
“Seven and seven in the FCIAC is by no means a guarantee,” Swaller said, “especially the way we played today. If we play that way like that, we’re going 0-14.”
Although Ludlowe is 3-3, the Falcons aren’t pleased about it.
“Am I happy that we’re 3-3 after six games? I’m not happy,” Ludlowe coach Brian Silvestro said. “But, I’m pleased with the direction we’re going.”
Ludlowe should be pleased with the way it played defense on Friday. Their aggressive man-to-man ‘D’ forced turnovers and Ludlowe turned those into points during a 21-8 game-closing run.
“Defensively, when you play that way, you tend to score,” Silvestro said. “I think we did what we had to do.”
Silvestro credited Stephen Scholz’s performance. He, along with Brent Peiffer, gave the Falcons good, tough minutes up front.
Patrick Gutierrez, Ludlowe’s all-tournament team member, and his fellow front-court counterpart Connor Peterson combined for 33 of Ludlowe’s 55 points.
“We really wanted to win this game and get back to .500,” Peterson said. “It was huge for us.”
I can’t dislike Ludlowe’s 3-3 start. The Falcons have won every game they’ve supposed to thus far. I know Silvestro is dying to get to eight wins, but I think his team will. Ludlowe competes in every game it plays, and the Falcons have size. If Mark Malone can hit shots the way he did Friday night, it’ll open up more spots for Peterson and Gutierrez too.
“We have a lot to improve on,” Peterson said. “Hopefully we can get into a position to get into the FCIAC tournament.”
I’m off until after the new year. So to all reading, have a happy new year.
Pat Pickens is the sports editor of the Fairfield Citizen, a Hearst Connecticut Newspaper organization. Follow him on Twitter here.