Boys basketball: Knights win Fairfield County crown for third time

The Milford Knights Blue seventh grade boys basketball travel team captured its second championship three-peat of the season when they defeated West Hartford Travel on Saturday for their their consecutive Fairfield County Basketball League AA championship.

Earlier in the year, the Knights won the Milford Rotary Sunday League title for the third season in a row.

The Knights run to the FCBL championship began with a match up against division rival West Haven. West Haven already owned three victories over the Knights this year, including a win in the final minute over the defending champion Knights in the 2018 InSports Holiday Tournament final.

In this opening round match up, West Haven would jump out to an early lead. Nolan McKenna-Hansen got the Knights going with an offensive rebound put-back and Ethan Long followed with a two and a three to cut the West Haven lead to 11-7.

John Neider added a driving lay-up and Dominic DiFederico chipped in with a free throw to end the first quarter with West Haven holding a 16-10 advantage.

Brendan Buchner and Long would add second quarter threes, McKenna-Hansen three free throws, Zach Worzel two free throws and Riley Jordan one freebie and the Knights cut the West Haven lead to 30-26 at the half.

In the third quarter, Long poured in six points and McKenna-Hansen went 5 of 7 from the charity stripe to cut the West Haven lead to 39-38.

In the decisive final quarter, the Knights pulled away with an impressive performance at the free throw line. Neider went 3 for 3, Worzel 1 for 2, McKenna-Hansen 1 for 1 and Long 9 for 15 as the Knights went on to a 61-54 win.

Offensively, Long led the way with 29 points, McKenna-Hansen 15 and Neider seven.

The semifinals saw the Knights take on Stamford JCC Blue at Ludlowe High School.

Long got the Knights going with 10 first quarter points and Cole Pleimann buried a deep three from the corner, but the Knights still trailed 19-17 after one quarter.

The second quarter saw the Knights continue its hot free throw shooting with Jordan, Neider and McKenna-Hansen all sandwiching free throws around baskets making the score 28-28 at the half.

Buchner got the third quarter scoring started with a jumper from the top of the key and Worzel added a pair of baseline jumpers as the Knights kept pace with Stamford.

McKenna-Hansen started the Knights scoring in the fourth with a bucket in the paint, Neider and Long added threes in the back and forth game. Worzel would score the Knights’ next five points to keep the score tied at 53 at the end of regulation.

Again, it was McKenna-Hansen opening the scoring in OT with an and-1 and Long added a three to give the Knights a 59-54 lead. Stamford would cut the lead to 59-56, but two free throws each by Long and Worzel would put the game out of reach and sent the Knights on to the finals.

Facing a 25-6 West Hartford travel team, the Knights would rely on their suffocating zone defense to lead the way.

Buchner, Worzel, Neider and McKenna-Hansen each had baskets in the first quarter as the Knights jumped out to an 8-2 advantage.  West Hartford would turn the tables on the Knights in the second quarter to cut the lead to 14-12 at the half.

In the third quarter, the Knights would face a tough test. After four points to start the quarter, Neider had to be helped from the floor with an apparent ankle injury forcing the Knights to dig into their bench.

Jordan, McKenna-Hansen and Long all added baskets as the Knights held a 26-20 lead.

With its championship hopes on the line, West Hartford was not going down without a fight. West Hartford got the fourth quarter scoring going with a deep three to cut the lead to 26-23. Worzel hit two free throws to extend the Knights lead to five. Another West Hartford three cut the lead to two, but McKenna-Hansen added a free throw of his own to bring it back to a three-point lead. West Hartford would respond with yet another three to tie the game at 29.

Neider returned and added a big bucket and McKenna-Hansen chipped in with two free throws as the Knights went up 33-29.

A West Hartford free throw would cut the lead to 33-30 and then a deep bank-shot three would tie the game at 33 which sent the large West Hartford faithful into a frenzy.

A Neider basket gave the Knights a 35-33 lead and West Hartford would respond with a free throw to cut the lead to 35-34 with 26 seconds remaining.

A foul in the back court would put Long at the free throw line, where he calmly converted two free throws giving the Knights a 37-34 lead.

After seeing West Hartford already drain four 3’s in the quarter, the Knights would need one last strong defensive half court stand and they did not disappoint.

After garnering a long rebound off another three-point attempt, and a West Hartford foul, would send Long back to the free throw line.

With six seconds left, Long made both free throws putting the game out of reach and giving the Knights their third consecutive FCBL title, 39-34.

While defense and free throw shooting were the keys to this year’s title runs, strong play from the Knights’ reserves certainly played a huge role. Defensive trapping specialists Jordan, Jack Aliberti and Aidan Ryan forced numerous turnovers during the run. Sharp-shooter Cole Pleimann added leadership and key baskets from the outside. Big men Dominic DiFederico, Jeanero King and Jacob Cupole all provided valuable minutes down low en route to the championship.

The 27-16 Knights will next face Branford Travel in the quarterfinals of Hoopfest on Saturday. Hoopfest is the only tournament the Knights have entered and are yet to win, bowing to Westport PAL in the 2016 final and 2017 semifinal.