Pre-Game Fairfield Prep Reception sponsored by the Prep Alumni Association AND the Fairfield Prep Fathers' Club. Stop by The Lansdowne Irish Pub & Music House (at Mohegan Sun) before the game to gather with alumni, families and friends. Appetizers will be served, with cash bar for all guests. Begins at 6:30 P.M.
WATERBURY -- There's something about Wilby High's Reggie O'Brien gymnasium that has been kind to Fairfield Prep shooters in the Class LL semifinals. Two years ago against Ridgefield, the Jesuits shot, in the words of senior forward Tim Butala, "lights out," en route to a win over the Tigers. Whatever the next step above "lights out" is would be how well Fairfield Prep shot the ball in the first half Tuesday night against East Hartford. And as the game wore on, it turned out the Jesuits needed every one of those early baskets as they held on for a wild 78-75 victory.
"We shot the lights out a couple years ago here and we kind of rode some hot shooting here tonight," said Butala, who scored a game-high 21 points. "Guys who had the ball were doing a good job getting some penetration, which forced the help-side (defense). Then the guys were ready with their feet set in the corners."
Fairfield Prep, the No. 1 seed, advances to this weekend's championship game where it will face No. 2 Hillhouse. It'll be the fourth meeting between the two schools, which have spent most of the season ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in the state poll. "They know us," Butala said. "We know them. It will be very familiar."
Thanks to its 77 percent shooting in the first half and the defensive presence of 7-foot center Paschal Chukwu (12 points, nine rebounds, 10 blocks), Prep built a 13-point halftime advantage. The Jesuits took their biggest lead on a basket by David Zielinski at the start of the third that made it 48-33.
Fifth-seeded East Hartford never went away and narrowed the gap mainly through 6-foot-4 Division I prospect Kahari Beaufort. The junior scored all of his 13 points in the second half. Prep also got sloppy with the ball, turning it over 14 times after the break. By the time there was 4:37 left in the game East Hartford had come all the way back, tying it at 64-64 on a free throw by Beaufort, which set the large contingent of Hornets' fans abuzz. "We got to them in the second half a little bit and wore them down," East Hartford coach Edward Lavoie said.
Prep appeared to have seized momentum back on back-to-back 3-point plays on drives to the basket from Tommy Nolan (18 points) and Ryan Murphy that made it 72-66 in the span of 30 seconds. Again East Hartford wouldn't fade, scoring the next five points. After Chukwu made one of two free throws, Nicholas Fenton (team-high 19 points) scored his only two points of the second half on a jumper, tying it 73-73 with 54 seconds left.
On its next possession, Prep worked the ball to Chukwu, who made an athletic finger-roll with 36 seconds left to break the deadlock. He then blocked Fenton's shot on the other end. Butala was eventually fouled and made one of two free throws to give the Jesuits a 76-73 lead with 19.3 seconds to go.
Things got even more dramatic on East Hartford's final possession when Beaufort launched a 3-pointer that drew contact from Chukwu, fouling him out and giving the Hornets a chance to tie it from the line with 12 seconds left. Before Beaufort could step to the line, Jesuits coach Leo Redgate used a timeout. The junior then missed the first free throw, before making the next two.
"I had a feeling if I called timeout, usually you wait until a foul shot," Redgate said. "I knew I had a full timeout and I wanted him to think about it and I thought, it's very tough in this environment to make three free throws in crunch time. I also thought we'd set something up so that if he made all three, I knew we were going to score."
Prep did just that. Up 76-75, the Jesuits never let the Hornets get the ball back. Nolan got the ball near the sideline, drew a double-team and passed it to Murphy near midcourt. Murphy then threw a one-touch jump pass over his head to Ryan Foley for an alley-oop layup with 3.3 seconds left. To that point, Prep had played only six players with Foley only entering the game after Chukwu fouled out. "I threw it up and saw Murph and he made an unselfish play and passed it to Ryan Foley," Nolan said. East Hartford barely had time to launch a full-court prayer, and when it sailed off target, the large crowd of Prep students ran onto the court to celebrate the school's second trip to the Class LL final in three seasons.