FAIRFIELD -- The annual Warde-Ludlowe boys basketball game is usually a time to put the town rivalry aside for a night and join forces for a common cause, like raising money for the American Cancer Society, which both teams pledged support for Tuesday night.

But on this night, the cancer part hit very, very close to home.

Warde junior forward Giacomo Brancato was recently diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a cancer that strikes the body's autoimmune system.

It was a shocking discovery.

Brancato had been fighting what he thought was a sore throat, but a trip to the doctor brought the worst possible diagnosis -- cancer.

"He's doing well, he's a fighter," said Brancato's mom, Mirella, before the game. "We know he's going to beat this."

A fighter indeed, Brancato not only played, he started on Tuesday, scoring nine points in the Mustangs' 70-64 loss to Ludlowe before a standing-room-only crowd in the Falcons' gym.

"I know that he was expecting to (play)," Warde head coach Ryan Swaller said. "I know he wanted to be out there and give his best effort for his team. He wanted to play and I said, `OK.'"

The news of Brancato's illness, which broke this week, stunned this tight-knit community, especially at both schools, where so many kids grow up playing with and against each other in youth leagues. Because this was a Coaches vs. Cancer game, each player from both the Warde and Ludlowe boys' and girls' teams played in honor of a friend or family member who has been affected by the disease. Ludlowe's Chris Howell played in honor or Brancato.

"It puts a lot of things into perspective," said Warde girls basketball coach Dave Danko, whose team wore special T-shirts with Brancato's basketball (11) and baseball (23) numbers on the back, and also wore green socks to honor his family's Italian heritage.

"This really hit home with my girls. We know he's a battler and we know that he's going to beat it."

Brancato scored four points in the first quarter as Ludlowe inched out to a 16-10 lead, and the junior hit a 3-pointer and a tough drive to the hoop to score as Warde closed to within 33-30 at halftime. But late in the third quarter, with Ludlowe holding onto a 42-40 lead, the Falcons scored the last five points of the quarter and opened the fourth with an 11-6 run to take a 58-46 lead with 4:22 left. Warde never got closer than the final margin.

"I tried to tell them to keep the hype down, don't play out of your role, stay in your element," Swaller said. "But as kids, they're going to play out of their role and out of their element with the crowd and all the extra emotion going through it."

"These games are so tough, you can throw the records out the window," Ludlowe coach John Dailey said. "They (Warde) played really hard tonight. They were really up for the task. We were fortunate to come out with a win."

The gym was packed, with both student sections exchanging chants and cheers throughout the game. Ludlowe players showed solidarity by wearing those special Brancato T-shirts in their pre-game warm-ups.

"There was definitely a different mood," Ludlowe's Matt Doyle said. "This was so much more than just basketball. It really showed how great we all feel for him and everything."

WARDE 16 17 14 23--70

LUDLOWE 10 20 10 24--64

Warde (1-5)

Marcel Parsons 6 3-4 16, Giacomo Brancato 4 0-0 9, Chris Smaldone 4 3-5 12, J.J. Conway 6 2-4 17, Kavon Polk 2 0-0 5. Totals: 22 8-13 64

Ludlowe (5-3)

Hayes Kelchner 4 1-2 9, Chad Peterson 3 6-12 12, Owen Mockler 0 3-4 3, Matt Doyle 4 6-6 15, Chris Howell 2 3-4 7, Greg Lawrence 1 0-0 2, Tim Berardino 2 0-0 6, Darren Lee 2 2-2 6, Thomas Duffy 4 0-0 10. Totals: 22 21-30