DeFanti was ready for this moment

New London - Will DeFanti is the opposing student section's fondest dream. For one thing, he can accessorize better than everyone else, sporting tights under his uniform that beg for comment. And he plays with a swagger that can animate, irritate and instigate.

DeFanti, at Stonington High by way of Maine, was ground zero for Lancer Nation, Waterford's clever student assemblage, Wednesday night. It was a broiling passion pit inside Conway Gym, an entertaining conference tournament semifinal between Waterford and Stonington, punctuated by the occasional zinger aimed at DeFanti and his tights.

"I'll say this," DeFanti said after the game, not long after his teammates' joyous chants and howls had become echoes, "when they started calling me 'Peter Pan' that was pretty good."

It wouldn't be much of an exaggeration to suggest that DeFanti had prepared all his life for Wednesday night. He just never knew when the moment would arrive. The moment when it was on him, the eyes of 1,500 fans. It was on him, all the verbal darts. It was on him, all the scowls from the opposing players. It was on him, the charge of shooting the ball in the closing seconds, Bears down one.

Will DeFanti made the shot.

Fifteen feet away, calm as a lagoon.

Stonington 60, Waterford 59.

And the Bears are in the ECC title game.

"If you watch us walk in the gym you think, 'This is Stonington?" coach Mike Reyes was saying. "But you can't measure heart. Will personifies it. So does Cody (Candelet). So does Jake (Berkowitz). Everybody."

But none more than DeFanti, a 6-foot guard who spent the first two years of high school in Portland, Maine. DeFanti is the third cousin of Stonington players Sam and Jackson Donahue. His dad, Tom, is a Stonington grad. The family moved back to the region late this summer, much to the delight of Reyes, who has himself a kid tougher than Clorox.

"It was late in the summer when I knew he was coming. Word was spreading," Reyes said. "We knew who he was because he had come to our camps. Obviously, a welcome addition."

DeFanti played in a state final at Portland High. And don't even try to poke fun of Maine basketball to him. We may view Maine as a place where they play mostly below the rim and say "ay-yup" a lot.

"I think basketball in Maine is better than here," he said. "They're used to this kind of atmosphere up there."

So there.

DeFanti drew stares from several Waterford players all game, including center Nolan Long, a gentle giant of a kid. Lancer Nation began a "you are awful (clap, clap, clap-clap-clap) chant in his honor. DeFanti knows not to expect Christmas cards from anybody not wearing brown and white.

"I have a chip on my shoulder," he said. "Ever since I was a freshman I've been with older kids. I haven't necessarily been bullied, but I've had to hold my own. I've had to push and shove to get everything. People don't like that."

And when they see a pusher and shover who wears tights underneath his uniform, the blowtorch meets the gasoline truck.

"I have a Rocco Baldelli thing," he said. "Muscle fatigue. My hips are off line. They help with blood circulation."

So there again.

DeFanti was sitting on a bench inside the locker room surrounded by reporters after Wednesday's game. On a night when each of his cousins made huge shots, Berkowitz stuck an improbable three late in the game and Candelet made one to end the third period, all they remembered was the game winner. DeFanti was telling the story well until somebody asked him about playing undefeated, No. 1 New London in Friday's finals.

The Bears played New London pretty well earlier this season.

"I told (New London guard) Kris Dunn I wanted a piece of them," DeFanti said. "We're the only team round here that can do it."

Sure hope you weren't expecting this kid to say anything else.

Can't wait for Friday.

If Reyes is correct and Will DeFanti personifies his team, the Bears won't be intimidated.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.


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