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Sunday, April 22 Sports

Central, Fairfield Prep to meet with state championship on the line

Tyler Ancrum insists he never gets nervous. Although, the senior point guard thinks that could change Saturday when Central faces Fairfield Prep for a LL state championship at Mohegan Sun Arena.

"Probably 10,000 people will be watching. Just getting on that floor is going to make me even more nervous," he said this week. "I've never been nervous."

It's unclear what the attendance will be -- last year's night session drew 9,800 fans -- but don't expect the Hilltoppers to shy away.

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Class LL boys basketball final
No. 1 Fairfield Prep (27-0) vs. No. 2 Central (26-1)
WHEN: Saturday, 8:15 p.m.
WHERE: Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville
FINALS HISTORY: Prep 7th appearance (2-4, last title in 1997); Central 11th appearance (4-6, last title in 2010)
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Prep -- Sr. C Paschal Chukwu, 7-foot-2, (SCC Player of the Year); Jr. SG Thomas Nolan, 6-2; Sr. PG Keith Pettway, 5-11; Jr. SF Ryan Foley, 6-0; Sr. SG Dave Zielinski, 6-0. Central -- Sr. PG Tyler Ancrum, 5-9 (FCIAC Player of the Year); Sr. SF Sha'Quan Bretoux, 6-3; Jr. PF Marcus Blackwell, 6-3; Sr. C Orhan Cecunjamin, 6-5; Sr. PF Antoin Pettway, 6-3.

"We know we can play our game," forward Marcus Blackwell said. "We know if we do that, it's going to be a good outcome. We're ready to get on the court."

Second-seeded Central's game is predicated on attacking the basket, but top-ranked Prep possesses the best neutralizer for an aggressive offense: a 7-foot-2 shot-blocker.

Senior center Paschal Chukwu has proven to disrupt offenses, even when opponents stray from the basket.

"Me being in the middle kind of changes their game," Chukwu said. "They take more (outside) shots than they would."

Central (26-1) doesn't plan to alter its plan too much, but it also hasn't had an opportunity to practice against a 7-footer. Chukwu last played against Central two years ago before he transferred from FCIAC foe Trinity Catholic.

"It is very difficult, if not impossible, to prepare for," Central coach Barry McLeod said, "because you can't duplicate that in practice. ... There's nobody 7-foot out there."

Those familiar with his play say there's also no comparison between the Chukwu of two years ago versus the Chukwu of now. The Providence College-bound senior's averaging 14 points, 13 rebounds and nearly seven blocks in the state tournament.

"He's double the player he was then," Greenwich coach Bill Brehm said Wednesday after Prep's 59-41 win in the LL semifinals.

The Hilltoppers -- particularly Ancrum, the two-time FCIAC tournament MVP -- thrive on their explosiveness in the open floor. Prep's (27-0) proven it can play any style too, especially with Keith Pettway and Thomas Nolan in the backcourt.

"We play very, very good fundamental basketball," Jesuits coach Leo Redgate said. "We pride ourselves on very, very good perimeter defense. That makes it even tougher with Paschal."

The Jesuits -- the state's lone unbeaten and top-ranked team since the postseason -- are no stranger to a deep postseason run. They're making their third appearance in four years in the LL final but haven't won a state title since 1997.

Hillhouse won last year's LL final 52-42, and the Jesuits haven't forgotten that.

"It hurt," Nolan said. "We know how it feels to be in that locker room after losing. I think that we've carried that with us the whole year. ... It's helped us a lot this year."

Central, which won its second straight FCIAC title, is making its first final appearance since its 2010 title. McLeod said Thursday that it was natural to think the Hilltoppers could return to the final this year, especially with four starters back, but he never took it for granted.

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To achieve what the 2010 squad did, this year's Central team will have to solve -- or possibly avoid -- Prep's force in the paint.

"You can't go all the way in," Ancrum said. "If (you do), it's going to get swatted."

dbonjour@ctpost.com; twitter.com/DougBonjour