FAIRFIELD -- Take one look at the bodies as the Fairfield Prep boys basketball team steps on the court each night and it's easy to see why the Jesuits have been the state's benchmark this season.
Any team with an intimidating low-post presence like 7-foot senior center Paschal Chukwu definitely has the tools to be a force of nature.
But that might also be the biggest misconception about the Jesuits. Chukwu's dominance is certainly one reason why No. 1-ranked and undefeated Fairfield Prep went into the first round of the state tournament riding a 23-game win streak. But it's not the only one.
Prep's guards can play a little bit as well.
Newington found that out for itself as the top-seeded Jesuits used the defensive tenacity and shooting ability of its backcourt to post an 82-61 victory over the 32nd-seeded Indians Tuesday night in the Class LL opener at Alumni Hall.
"I think everyone looks at Pascal and says, `Oh my God, oh my God, how are you going to beat them,'" said Prep coach Leo Redgate, whose team beat Hillhouse to win its first SCC title last week. "But I would argue that our guards are up there with the best in the state. They're ready to knock down shots and they're ready to play great pressure defense."
The Indians (9-13), a young team with a freshman and two sophomores in the starting lineup, caught the Providence-bound Chukwu on a rare off night. Newington scouted Prep well, and used a strong game plan to hold Chukwu to four points, two rebounds and three blocks in the first half.
That allowed the Indians to feel like they were in the game down 17-11 at the end of the first quarter and 40-29 at halftime.
But Prep's guards picked up the slack with unrelenting defensive pressure that forced 10 first-half turnovers and fantastic shooting on the perimeter. Prep finished with 10 three-pointers. Its five-headed guard rotation of Tom Nolan, Ryan Foley, Keith Pettway, Dave Zielinski and Ryan Murphy accounted for 58 of the team's 82 points.
Chukwu finished with eight points, seven rebounds and six blocks for Prep (24-0), which outscored Newington 24-5 in the third quarter to put the game out of reach.
Fairfield Prep will face No. 16 East Hartford (14-7) in the second round Thursday at Alumni Hall. East Hartford kept the Jesuits from a third meeting with SCC rival Xavier after posting a 48-41 victory over the 17th-seeded Falcons Tuesday night.
"I think our guard play last year was our main problem. It was why we didn't win states. Hillhouse's guards were just better than us," said Nolan, who collected five assists, five rebounds and two steals. "This year all our guards are playing well. Everyone is kind of in synch and it makes it easier to play with those guys. We know we have to step up when Paschal's not having a good game."
Newington coach Scott Wenzel was more concerned about the shooting ability of Prep's guards than he was about Chukwu's inside prowess. His fear ended up being accurate as senior Dave Zielinski (11 points) connected on three 3-pointers while Tom Nolan (15 points) and Ryan Foley (10 points, four assists) hit two each.
Ryan Murphy (13 points, four assists) and Keith Pettway (nine points) had one each for Prep, which also knocked the Indians out of the state tournament in the first round last season. Read Full Article
Prep led 71-36 in the fourth quarter before Redgate pulled his starters, allowing the Indians to finish the game on a 25-11 run.
"We knew they could shoot the ball well," Wenzel said. "We were hoping to catch a few breaks and shoot the ball well ourselves. Unfortunately, when they shoot the ball like they do and we don't shoot well, it's very tough to beat them."
Chukwu actually spent the first five minutes of the second quarter on the bench with two fouls, but the Jesuits still managed to keep the Indians at bay, using 3-pointers by Pettway, Murphy and Nolan and a conventional 3-point play by Pat Harding, Chukwu's temporary replacement, to build a 35-18 lead midway through the second quarter.
Prep, which lost to Hillhouse in the Class LL final last season, will meet the Academics in the quarterfinals if all goes according to plan.
"All year long our mentality has been to get back to the (Mohegan) Sun," Nolan said. "That left a bitter taste in our mouths losing to the same team three times last year, especially in the finals, both the SCC and the Class LL finals. That definitely pushed us this year, wanting to get back there."
Class LL first round
Jared Simmons 1 3-4 5 Zach Tinkham 3 0-0 9 Pablo Ortiz 5 0-0 10 Edwin Gomez 4 7-9 15 Marcus Guadarrama 3 2-6 8 Evan Mach 3 1-2 7 Shawn Maggie 3 1-5 7 Ryan Deblasio 0 0-0 0 Nick Guadarrama 0 0-0 0. Totals: 22 15-26 61.
FAIRFIELD PREP (24-0)
Ryan Foley 4 0-0 10 Tom Nolan 4 5-6 15 Keith Pettway 4 0-0 9 Dave Zielinski 4 0-1 11 Paschal Chukwu 4 0-0 8 Ryan Murphy 6 0-1 13 Ray Featherston 0 0-0 0 Pat Harding 1 1-1 3 Joe DiGennaro 0 0-0 0 Rich Van de Berghe 3 0-0 6 John Murphy 0 0-0 0 Tate Duran 0 0-0 0 Allen Gibson 3 0-0 7 Matt Gerics 0 0-0 0 Drew Rollap 0 0-0 0. Totals: 33 6-9 82
NEWINGTON 11 18 5 27--61
FAIRFIELD PREP 17 23 24 18--82
3-pointers: N--Tinkham 3; FP--Zielinski 3, Foley 2, Nolan 2, Pettway, R. Murphy, Gibson.
Technical fouls: N--bench.