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Fairfield — Donny Craig's regular season became the embodiment of Waterford High School's: It was decent. OK. Capable of more. But would it ever happen?
And now comes the state tournament, the most auspicious time of them all. Would it happen? It's happening. And it happened with an exclamation point Monday night in the state quarterfinals.
Few other players in program history could say they ever played better under more dire circumstances than Craig did, inside a small passion pit of a gymnasium. His 30 points, 11 rebounds, six steals, two assists and one block helped the seventh-seeded Lancers get to the Class M semifinals for the second time in three years with a 66-63 win over No. 2 Notre Dame of Fairfield.
Waterford (18-7) meets No. 3 East Catholic in the semifinals Wednesday night at site to be determined today by the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference. The winner plays the winner of the Weaver-Lewis Mills game for the state title this weekend at Mohegan Sun Arena, where Waterford would play for its second state championship in three years.
"We were on the road," Craig said, "and I needed to provide a spark for the team."
The biggest spark came with 10 seconds left and Waterford holding two-point lead that had evaporated from eight moments earlier. Craig stole a pass headed for the post, which led to one of five clutch free throws Isaiah Jones made in the fourth period, giving Waterford a 66-63 lead.
Jones made the free throws, surviving the darts aimed from the Notre Dame student section.
"They were calling me 'Little Bill' (after the cartoon) and 'Peanut Head,'" Jones said. "I was nervous at the line, but I think all that stuff helped me out."
Notre Dame's Jaylen Jennings missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer, sending the Lancers and Lancer Nation, their student section that helped pack the gym, into a celebratory pile at midcourt.
"I feel so comfortable when Donny has the ball in his hands," Waterford coach Greg Gwudz said. "He took over. He was a different player today."
Gwudz noted at least one another player's contribution: Center Connor Lewis, who scored 12 points, held Jennings, Notre Dame's leading scorer, to a season-low three points.
"We knew how good (Jennings) was," Gwudz said. "We told Connor to front him, deny him, work him. It's hard work, but he's capable of it. He's unsung. He doesn't care how many points he scores. He'll get every rebound, block shots, defend ... he's the reason we were able to control them. Jennings is one of the best players in the state and Connor made him look average."
Schneider Jean-Pierre had 10 points for the Lancers, who trailed by a point at halftime.
Now the team that lost several gut-busters during the regular season is one of two teams left standing in the Eastern Connecticut Conference.
"Say what you want," Gwudz said. "But we played New London twice, Ledyard, NFA and that helped us out big time. We told the guys that (Notre Dame) plays good man to man defense, but not as good as NFA. So just go out and play."