The dream is over for the Notre-Dame of Fairfield boys basketball team.
Needing one more win to reach its first state championship game since 1980, No. 6 Notre Dame ran into a brick wall in the form of 6-foot-9 senior center Nolan Long and No. 4 Waterford, dropping a 63-61 decision in the Class M semifinals Wednesday night at a packed Sheehan High School gym in Wallingford.
Long scored a team-high 19 points, pulled down a game-high 15 rebounds and blocked two shots to lead Waterford (23-1), which will face No. 4 Watertown (21-3) in the Class M state championship game Saturday at 4:15 p.m. at Mohegan Sun Arena.
Waterford received solid play from senior point guard Geary McLeod, a speedy ball-handler who scored 15 points to go along with six assists and six rebounds. Senior forward Mike Martin added 10 points, six rebounds and five assists. That included a clutch 3-pointer with one minute left to give Waterford a 57-56 lead.
Notre Dame led 56-54 with 1:29 left, but Waterford used a 9-2 run to take a 63-58 lead before Upchurch drained a long-range 3-pointer at the buzzer.
But there was no denying the impact of Long, who helped Waterford successfully break Notre Dame’s press while causing havoc in the paint against the much smaller Lancers. When Long stretched his arms out, they appeared to cover the entire length of the paint.
“He’s just so large, it’s intimidating to try to go over him,” said Notre Dame head coach Vin Laczkoski, whose young team wrapped up a solid season at 21-6 overall. “We have a bunch of 6-foot-tall guys, and it’s hard to shoot over him.”
Waterford head coach Greg Gwudz took a gamble by putting Long on the bench for most of the second quarter. Long dominated the first quarter, scoring eight of his team’s first 12 points to get Waterford off to a 15-9 lead.
After picking up his second foul in the second, Gwudz decided to roll the dice with a committee of 6-foot-6 senior Saxon Herbert and 6-foot-3 junior David Willox.
“They’re an aggressive team and we knew they were going to go after Nolan with two fouls,” Gwudz said. “We were going after their big guy with two fouls.”
Long’s absence allowed Notre Dame to tie the game 26-26 at halftime behind the outside shooting of freshman Clinton Davidson (11 points), who nailed three 3-pointers off the bench, and junior forward Earl Coleman, who scored 18 points and pulled down eight rebounds.
Once the second half started, Long picked up right where he left off, racking up 11 points and 10 rebounds to keep the momentum from going completely over the Notre Dame’s sideline.
“We were fortunate to be able to hold them off going into halftime,” Gwudz said. “(Long) was ready to roll in the second half. He really put us on his back for a while. We knew if we could weather the storm, he would have some opportunities, and he did.”
Notre Dame junior point guard Daniel Upchurch (20 points, five assists) started slowly but exploded in the third quarter, hitting three 3-pointers over the first three minutes to help the Lancers take a 37-31 lead.
“He shot us right back in the game,” Laczkoski said.
The Lancers knew they would have to shoot the ball well to have a chance against the inside presence of Long and finished 7-for-23 from behind the 3-point line. But poor shot selection over the final minute helped lead the Notre Dame’s demise.
“The kids fought hard. I couldn’t fault their heart. But we took some bad shots in the end,” Laczkoski said. “It’s a shame it had to end like this.”
Notre Dame appeared to be in control after using a 5-0 run, including a technical foul on Waterford, to take a 54-52 lead with 3:27 left. But Notre Dame decided to hold the ball coming out of the free throws, settling for an inside shot by Coleman that was missed and eventually resulted in a jump ball.
McLeod scored off a fast-break feed from Martin on the other side of the court moments later to tie the game 54-54 and Waterford controlled the game after that.
“They were playing a box-and-1 so we wanted to get organized, and we took a minute off the clock,” Laczkoski said. “The ball got knocked around and we got a pretty good shot off. Unfortunately we were in the press, they found an opening and they got a layup.”
That’s when Waterford’s role players took over. After Martin’s 3-pointer made it 57-56, Jordan Hamler scored his first points of the night off an inside dish by McLeod to make it 59-56 with 34.2 seconds left.
Coleman scored on a drive to pull Notre Dame to within 59-58 with 22.7 seconds left, but Hamler converted a putback off a missed shot by McLeod with five seconds left and Cory Murallo hit two foul shots to seal the victory with 3.3 seconds remaining.
“We have our stars,” Gwudz said. “But we also have a complete team. Someone is always ready to step up.”
Notre Dame will lose just three seniors and one starter (Miles) to graduation, making the future seem very bright for Laczkoski and the Lancers.
“We have a good nucleus coming back,” Laczkoski said. “If all the kids work hard and do what they’re supposed to do, hopefully we’ll be good.”