STRATFORD -- When the lead official walked over to the scorer's table at midcourt of Needham Gymnasium to sign the scorebook a few minutes before the tipoff of Tuesday night's Notre Dame-Fairfield/Stratford boys basketball game, he asked if it was good to go.
It was, except for one minor detail -- Red Devils coach Paul Dudzinski hadn't checked off his starting lineup.
"You guys pick it," Dudzinski joked.
The veteran coach tried to take a "laughter-is-the-best-medicine" approach in the face of a major lineup conundrum -- leading-scorer Bernard Brantley wouldn't play due to a foot injury suffered on Saturday against Bunnell.
Yet in Brantley's absence, the rest of the Red Devils rallied and pulled off a surprising 57-46 victory over the Lancers.
"We knew that we wanted to prove something ... that we could play without our captain, Shoody (Brantley's nickname)," Stratford senior Arron Smith said. "We had to come out and play with or without him."
Stratford (4-2) set the tone early when Marcus Vereen sunk a 3-pointer on its first possession. On the next trip down, Emmanuel Young, who moved into the starting lineup, sunk another three, making it 6-0. The Red Devils connected on 4-of-7 3-point attempts in the first quarter, allowing them some time to settle into the game.
Eric Rankin led Stratford with 15 points. Vereen added 14.
"We made a little run first which got us some confidence and that helped," Dudzinski said. "The guys stepped up and shared the ball."
Notre Dame made a charge in the second quarter, led by Dan Upchurch, who scored 12 of his game-high 21 points in the frame. At this point it appeared the Lancers were on track to assume control and assert themselves over the out-manned Red Devils. A lay-up by Jaylon Jennings midway through the second put Notre Dame ahead 22-20.
The Lancers' lead was short-lived. Will Hudson put Stratford back on top, thanks to a 3-point play on the next possession, showing the Red Devils -- with or without their leader -- weren't going to back down on this night.
"As soon as we saw Shoody was out of the game, my guys thought it would be an easy game," Lancers coach Vin Laczkoski said. "This is one of the best groups I've had to work with and they didn't come to play. I have to blame me."
A 3-pointer by Upchurch gave Notre Dame its final lead, 25-23, late in the second.
"Give Stratford all the credit," Laczkoski said. "They scrapped. They played smart. They played together."
Stratford led by as many as seven early in the third, but Notre Dame got to within two points by the end of the quarter. From there the Lancers went cold from the floor, making only three field goals in the fourth quarter.
The Red Devils' hustle on defense and for loose balls, as well as under the boards, helped them close out the victory.
"I'm sort of very conservative, that's who I am, but believe me, it's a big win," Dudzinski said. "We'll enjoy it tonight and come back to work and get ready for Brookfield."
Dudzinski was unsure how many more games Brantley (24 ppg.) would miss. He said the injury was to the upper part of his foot. Brantley was wearing a boot in pregame warmups and attempted some shots Tuesday night.
Dan Upchurch 7 2-5 21 CJ Davidson 2 0-1 4 Earl Coleman 4 0-0 8 Kevin Laing 0 0-2 0 Jaylon Jennings 2 1-4 5 Jake Heaton 3 2-2 8 Jesse McIntosh 0 0-0 0 Joe Mangiamele 0 0-0 0 Jordan Pettway 0 0-0 0 Tajik Bagley 0 0-0 0 Justin Federici 0 0-0 0 Totals: 18 5-14 46
Marcus Vereen 4 5-8 14 Will Hudson 3 1-1 8 Arron Smith 2 1-1 5 Anthony Moncovich 0 0-0 0 Nick DiIulio 1 1-2 3 Bryan Lesperance 2 1-4 5 Eric Rankin 5 4-8 15 Sam Breiner 1 0-0 2 Emmanuel Young 1 2-2 5 Totals: 19 15-26 57
ND-FAIRFIELD 9 16 12 9--46
STRATFORD 16 12 11 18--57
3-pointers: ND--Upchurch 2; S--Vereen, Hudson, Rankin, Young
Fouled out: ND--Mangiamele