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    Friday, May 17, 2024

    ‘Beefed up’ schedule helped St. Bernard reach CIAC Division II boys’ basketball final

    St. Bernard head coach Mark Jones, left, and his players hope for one more celebration on Sunday night when the Saints played Staples of Westport in the CIAC Division II state championship game at Mohegan Sun Arena. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    St. Bernard took a trip late last December to play at Ridgefield, then the four-time defending Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference boys’ basketball champion.

    It didn’t go well for the Saints.

    “We came in thinking we were super-good,” St. Bernard senior Tyson Wheeler said about that 72-42 loss. “We thought we were the best and they humbled us. They’re a really good team.”

    The Saints played eight non-conference games during the regular season, far more than they’ve played in the past. Part of it was out of necessity. Part of it was to toughen them up for the state tournament

    St. Bernard believes that schedule has helped it during its run to the CIAC Division II tournament final and the results bear it out. It has given itself a chance to win the program’s first state championship since 1982 when it plays Staples in Sunday night’s 6:15 final at Mohegan Sun Arena.

    “It was definitely the game of the year that really helped us get better,” Wheeler said about that Ridgefield loss. “Not the game of the year that was fun, it was the game of the year that helped us get better. … I appreciate them giving us that beat down.”

    St. Bernard senior Cedric Similien said about the schedule, “It was a lot more beefed up.”

    The top-seeded Saints (24-3) played three-or-four non-conference games the past few seasons. They played eight this season because they had more open dates to fill. They voluntarily moved up to Division I of the Eastern Connecticut Conference having gone up to Division II last season and, before that, playing in Division III.

    The ECC’s Division I has four teams (East Lyme, New London and NFA are the others) whereas the other three divisions have five teams.

    St. Bernard played CIAC Division I finalist Northwest Catholic, defending Division III champion Hand, perennial state power Windsor, Immaculate, Prince Tech, Malden Catholic (Mass.), St. John’s Prep (N.Y.) and Ridgefield.

    “Shoutout to Ms. (Susan) Griffin, our AD,” Wheeler said about schedule.

    The Saints also played New London three times (the last of which was at the ECC Division I tournament final) and defending Division V state champion Windham.

    St. Bernard doesn’t believe it was tested enough headed into last year’s state tournament. The Saints reached semifinals before losing to Hand, 76-65.

    “If we had that same schedule that we did this year last year, I feel like we would’ve been more prepared,” Similien said. “We didn’t know that patient type of basketball, back door cuts. We weren’t ready for that at all.”

    Ridgefield played almost that same style when it thumped St. Bernard.

    “We didn’t know what we were getting into,” Similien said. “I’m seeing pass face cuts. I’m seeing back screens to another back screen. It was crazy. And they’re just moving the ball. It opened our eyes.”

    Ridgefield advanced to the CIAC Division I semifinals this year, where was thrashed by defending champion and top-seeded East Catholic, 74-45.

    The Saints struggled in the second round against No. 16 New Canaan on March 9, trailing for alll but six of the game’s 32 minutes.

    Similien’s three-point play with 4 minutes, 25 seconds left put St. Bernard ahead to stay as it won, 49-42.

    “I don’t think we win that New Canaan game if we don’t play Ridgefield or Malden Catholic (a 78-50 loss on Feb. 11),” Wheeler said. “I think that prepared us.”

    Similien said, “I think the schedule really helped us in the long run because it allowed us to see other types of basketball that are being played around the state.”

    No. 7 Staples (21-6) beat Ridgefield twice during the FCIAC season, the last a 71-54 win in the tournament semifinals en route to its first conference final.

    The Wreckers beat New Canaan in overtime, 68-67, on Jan. 10. They rallied from an 18-point, fourth-quarter deficit to beat FCIAC rival Fairfield Warde in overtime, 57-55, in the semifinals.

    “They’re good,” Saints head coach Mark Jones said. “They have a 6-foot-8 kid (Chris Zajac) that’s really good. We’re going to have to try to figure that out and do what we do.”

    n.griffen@theday.com

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