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Jeff Jacobs: Division I final a true heavyweight championship

March 16, 2018 GMT

CHESHIRE — When it was his turn to speak at the CIAC luncheon for this much-awaited Division I state championship, a game prefaced by a week of some of the most amazing games in state high school history, Chris Watts talked about the basketball.

Rather, the Notre Dame-Fairfield coach talked Friday about deflating the basketball.

Watts, who helped Vito Montelli win back-to-back state titles in 1986-87, played at Providence and returned as assistant to help the legendary St. Joseph’s coach win some more, looked at his seniors. Then he looked at Sacred Heart’s seniors.

“You guys are going to college, a lot of you are going to continue to play the game,” said Watts, who took over at Notre Dame two years ago. “Even the guys who don’t, you’ve got to understand mom, dad, grandma, aunt isn’t going to be at the door waiting for you at night. It’s going to be important for you guys to get into the right cars, to be with the right people, to get your schoolwork done.

“I’m telling you the air in that basketball will start to deflate every time you jump in that car with a knucklehead, every time don’t do your school work. And before you know, you’re not going to bounce that thing you love. You guys love this game. Give yourself a chance.”

It was one of those beautiful moments, powerful moments, in the middle of the craziest, most competitive stretches of basketball that reminded us all what the real mission of high school sports are. The kids were listening.

Yet it also is true that it is a mission of the adults who oversee the games to find the most level playing field for those students to enjoy their sport and have a chance to excel at them. Much time, effort and brainpower has gone into debating, arguing, trying to fix the boys basketball divisions for the state tournament. It was broken.

And when this one-year experiment by the CIAC is examined in the coming weeks undoubtedly there will be some holes to fill, some improvements that still can be made. Yet if the overarching mission was to give the small public schools relief from parochial powers and to get the best teams in one division, well, that mission took a robust step forward in 2018.

In the most delicious of ironies, Notre Dame, unbeaten this season, and Sacred Heart, which has a 107-game winning streak against CIAC opponents, will meet for the state championship for third successive year in the third different division. At once, that should tell you how good these teams are and how much they had needed to be part of the premier bracket.

“We’re going to have an undisputed heavyweight champion,” CIAC associate executive director Gregg Simon said. “A true state champion will be crowned Sunday.”

Look at the polls. Look at the teams. His statement is truth.

And here is another. One of the happy consequences of the 21-team Division I tournament has been more than one great game at Mohegan Sun Arena at 6 p.m. Sunday. It has been one great week.

“The gauntlet,” Sacred Heart coach Jon Carroll said. “It has provided fantastic drama. The comebacks, the endings, epic games.”

“Every night has been an unbelievable battle, every night was a championship game,” Watts said. “Initially when they chose us, we were a little upset we were in Division I. But if we want to be that program, to say you’re the best, we’ve got to beat the best.”

Two quarterfinal games went to overtime, a third was decided by one point. Sacred Heart beat Windsor by a point in the semifinals. Insane comebacks. Buzzer-beating threes. Huge high school crowds. All of it.

At Trumbull, Danbury took a 21-point fourth quarter lead on Notre Dame. Fans were leaving. Tyler Bourne had an answer. He scored 26 points in the fourth quarter and overtime for a 76-70 victory. Look at Notre Dame’s quarter-by-quarter linescore: 9-7-9-37-14. Eight-minute quarters? No shot clock? That’s nuts.

The same Monday night at the Floyd Little Athletic Center, Hamden roared back from a 19-point second half deficit to go up one with 24 seconds left. Kevin Crawford had an answer 10 seconds later to give Bassick a 75-74 victory.

Great games, but move over, fellas. Windsor and East Catholic produced The Classic. All winter long, folks debated who could knock off mighty No. 1 East Catholic? For weeks, it looked as if nobody would.

The quarterfinal at Bulkeley already had been a memorable one when Windsor’s Shomor Leapshart — man, I love that name — inbounded from under his basket with 1.5 seconds remaining in double overtime. The gym was packed. Fans were lined three deep behind Leapshart.

At the left side of the lane, Corey McKeithan gave a little fake and bolted for the right corner. Jamil Hornesby chased McKeithan, who speared Leapshart’s pass. Hornesby’s momentum carried him past McKeithan and the Windsor sophomore was able to square up and hit a three as the buzzer sounded for an 82-81 victory. Students swarmed the court. Unforgettable.

Incredibly, McKeithan would have another chance Thursday in the semifinals. Windsor was wearing out Sacred Heart in front of 2,700 fans at the University of Hartford. The Warriors led by 15 with 3:32 to go, 12 with 2:27 left. This was without leading scorer Tyshawn Wellborn, injured against East Catholic. That’s when Isiah Gaither went to work. That’s when Raheem Solomon, Mustapha Heron’s brother, did, too. When Solomon sank two free throws with 16 seconds left, the Hearts went ahead, 59-58.

With 4.4 seconds left, Windsor inbounded the ball from the sideline. Miracles don’t always happen. McKeithan’s three from the top of the key missed.

So it is Sacred Heart and Notre Dame-Fairfield. Again. And again.

There are a large number of byes with the new format. The weather played some havoc with the staggered schedule. Teams here and there will argue they should be in another division. Sunday morning starting times at Mohegan Sun, Sacred Heart and Notre Dame played the entire tournament on neutral sites because of gym size … throw it all in a jar and when you pour it back out, well, the 2018 experiment was a massive step forward.

“For a first shot it came out pretty pure,” CIAC executive director Karissa Niehoff said.

“I don’t think there’s a perfect system, but this has been a lot of fun,” Carroll said. “When it got down to the last eight in Division 1, I looked at the aggregate record. It was like 158-13, with the 13 losses out of state or to each other. Removing myself from the coach part, I’m an enormous fan of it. It provided great matchups and drama. At its core, the purpose of high school sports isn’t public entertainment. But I think it certainly has given that.”

jeff.jacobs@hearstmediact.com; @jeff.jacobs123