They met 78 days ago, an enthralling encounter on the opening night of the high school boys basketball season that foreshadowed and served as an opening bookend to tonight, when Trinity Catholic and Central meet for the FCIAC championship on the final evening of the conference season.
The first meeting, a back-and-forth affair, wasn't decided until Brandon Wheeler's putback with two seconds left lifted the Crusaders to a dramatic 66-64 victory.
Few will be surprised if tonight's title game at 7 at Fairfield Warde isn't just as close and doesn't come down to the final possession.
"What I remember from that first game of the season was that Bridgeport Central was going to be awfully tough at the end of the season," Trinity coach Mike Walsh said. "And they certainly are. They have come together at the right time. We certainly have our work cut out for us."
In some ways, this final almost seems preordained: a team from Stamford or Bridgeport has won every FCIAC title since 2000. Bassick is the two-time defending champion, after Central won in 2010. The Crusaders have been in the final nine of the past 12 years, including last season, but have not won since 2008.
"They know we are trying to finish this off," Central coach Barry McLeod said of his players. "Coming in second is no big deal. Our first game was a good game, a spurty game. They led, then we came back."
The second-seeded Crusaders (21-1), riding a 13-game winning streak since their lone loss, an overtime defeat at the hand of St. Joseph, may have the greater star power. That comes in the package of Schadrac Casimir, the guard who is considered by most the de facto FCIAC Player of the Year.
Casimir is averaging 26 points -- fitting since he scored 26 points in the first meeting with the Hilltoppers -- along with 4.1 assists and 3.1 steals. He has stepped up in every clutch situation, a beacon of consistency.
"He's talented," McLeod said. "He does things that you can't really teach. He can probably break down the Ravens' front line."
Added Walsh: "Schadrac has done it for us all year long. Maybe it will come down to what the other guys can do."
Wheeler (19.1 points, 9.8 rebounds), as he was the first time, might be a critical factor for the Crusaders. On a team with little height and depth, Wheeler at 6-foot-3, is a tremendous undersized rebounder -- he had 13 against Central. He will need a repeat performance for Trinity to be successful.
Tremaine Fraiser is the last piece of the team's so-called Big 3, and he is the most versatile player in the group.
But Trinity's fate will be determined by much more than what it does with the ball.
"We have to worry about their athleticism and their quickness," Walsh said. "We will have to do a good job against their pressure, limit turnovers and look to attack it and score against it. We have to limit their transition game."
The Hilltoppers (18-4), the No. 4 seed, are the league's deepest team, riding a seven-game winning streak. Eliminating top-seeded St. Joseph for the second year in a row, as Central did Tuesday night, has the pundits talking about it as the paradigm of the team that peaks at the end of the year all the way to a championship.
"We're a little bit different," McLeod said of the maturation of his players since the start of the season. "I think some of the guys have grown a little bit. It is a good group of guys, and they started listening and really buying in to what we are selling."
The Hilltoppers' versatility was never more evident than Tuesday night, when Marcus Blackwell, who had been their hottest player, was held to just two points, yet they still defeated the pre-tournament favorite.
Tyler Ancrum, the dynamic point guard who keeps getting better as a playmaker and finisher, was spectacular with 28 points. ShaQuan Bretoux added 19 points and Antoin Pettway added 10.
On a given night any of the four players can lead the team in scoring, and despite not having a senior and coming off a stretch of seven games in 12 days, Central seems to be on a magical roll.
"It is going to be a really tough challenge for us," Walsh said. "But I'm glad. I think at the beginning of the year people didn't think we could get back to the championship game, but the kids never doubted it and I never doubted the kids."
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