FAIRFIELD -- The St. Joseph boys basketball team has tried going into the FCIAC playoffs as a top seed for the past four seasons, and all that's gotten the Cadets is an early exit and extra practice time for the state tournament.
Now we may get to see how St. Joseph fares as an eighth seed.
St. Joseph came back from a 12-point deficit at the end of the first quarter, using solid play off the bench from seniors Raekwon Reid and Erick Langston and one of its best defensive performances of the season to pull out a 59-44 victory over Fairfield Ludlowe Monday night.
Coupled with losses by Trinity Catholic and Darien, the Cadets are currently the No. 8 seed for the FCIAC playoffs, with a home game against McMahon on Wednesday still to come. A win and the Cadets are in.
Senior Jon Dzurenda scored a game-high 15 points while Arkel Ager, Reid and Langston added 11 each for St. Joseph (10-9 overall, 9-8 FCIAC).
St. Joseph has been hiding in the shadow of teams like Central, Greenwich and Westhill all season, but suddenly looks pretty dangerous.
"If we keep playing defense, we'll be fine," Reid said. "I think we can be a force to be reckoned with."
The Cadets went into the FCIAC playoffs as the No. 1 seed three years in a row and lost in the first round each time. Coach Chris Watts is hoping for something different as a lower seed, even if that means a first-round matchup with top-seeded Central.
"Coming in as the one or two seed as we have in the past and then just flopping in the first game has been disappointing," Watts said. "We're coming in as the eighth seed, but if you're going to win a tournament, you're going to have to play the best team anyways. If we're going to go at No. 1, why not make it the first game?"
St. Joseph took the court with an unusual starting lineup with Watts sitting a number of veterans for disciplinary reasons. That included Reid, Langston and center Steve Hashemi.
"I can't run a program with guys who want to do their own thing," Watts said. "If guys want to do their own thing at this point of the year and jeopardize my integrity and the integrity of the team, then I have to do something."
Ludlowe (5-14 overall), a young but dangerous team which has defeated a couple of FCIAC playoff teams this season, took full advantage of the situation, using strong ball movement and the inside play of freshman center Hayes Kelchner (13 points, six rebounds, two blocks) to take a 17-5 lead at the end of the first quarter.
However, after Watts was sure he had sent the proper message, he finally put seniors Reid and Langston on the court. That made all the difference. The Cadets started playing defense like their playoff lives were at stake, which they were, and outscored Ludlowe 12-5 in the second quarter to get to within 22-17 at halftime.
The Cadets then forced 11 turnovers in the third quarter, went on a 19-4 run midway through the frame to take a commanding 36-27 lead and was never threatened after that.
"We're a defensive team," said Reid, who collected three steals, five rebounds and five assists. "Once we dig in and get our minds set on defense, we can be a great team. We practice defense long and we practice it hard, and that paid off."
Reid helped St. Joseph switch into a higher gear with his intensity and speed on defense. With Reid at point guard, Dzurenda was able to do his thing on offense, scoring the first seven points of the second quarter, including one of his two 3-pointers.
"The tempo Rae brings to the floor forces teams to speed up and makes them play into our hands," Watts said.
Langston was a force on both ends of the court, scoring eight of his 11 points in the fourth quarter while collecting eight rebounds and four assists, most of which came on court-length passes to Dzurenda for fast-break layups.
Langston showed his versatility in the fourth quarter, scoring on a right-handed hook shot then taking a charge on the defensive end on the next trip down the court.
"Erick's presence down low is important for us. I'm just a big Erick fan," Watts said. "He's the type of kid who's selfless. He doesn't have to score all the points and get the glory. He's happy with throwing four passes for Jon Dzurenda and that makes his day."
Ludlowe was hanging close in the third quarter, regaining a 27-26 lead on the second of two 3-pointers by senior point guard Mark Malone (11 points). But Reid scored off a pass from Langston to put St. Joseph up 28-27 and Ager scored eight straight points, including two straight slam dunks, to make it 36-27 and that was just about it.
"They going to be dangerous," Ludlowe head coach John Dailey said. "If they play with the energy and the intensity they played with tonight in the second half, they're going to be tough. I think that's a very dangerous eighth seed if they get in."
ST. JOSEPH (10-9)
Jon Dzurenda 6 1-4 15 Arkel Ager 5 1-8 11 Joe Mangimelli 0 0-1 0 Mike Sulik 1 0-0 2 Jordan Vazzano 3 1-1 7 Tyshon Williams 1 0-0 2 Erick Langston 5 0-0 11 Raekwon Reid 4 2-2 11 Omar Telfor 0 0-0 0 Steve Hashemi 0 0-0 0 Connor Gallagher 0 0-0 0 Darren Jackson 0 0-0 0. Totals: 25 5-16 59.
FAIRFIELD LUDLOWE (5-14)
Hayes Kelchner 5 3-7 13 Matt Doyle 4 0-0 8 Chad Peterson 1 2-4 8 Jack Armstrong 1 0-0 2 Mark Malone 3 3-3 11 Owen Mockler 0 0-0 0 Kevin Hickey 0 1-4 1 Kiran Prakash 1 1-2 3 Darren Lee 0 0-0 0 Chris Howell 1 0-0 2. Totals: 16 10-20 44.
ST. JOSEPH 5 12 19 23--59
FAIRFIELD LUDLOWE 17 5 13 14--44
3-pointers: SJ--Dzurenda 2, Langston, Reid; FL--Malone 2.