UNCASVILLE -- The message all season long, delivered by Fairfield Prep boys basketball coach Leo Redgate on an almost daily basis after senior point guard Ray Featherston was lost with a torn ACL, was simply this: believe.

Believe in the system. Believe in your teammates. Believe that you can succeed at anything if you try hard enough. And slowly but surely, the message started to sink in. Not having Featherston, the Jesuits stayed focused. Losing Tommy Nolan for three weeks with an ankle sprain, they stayed together. And in the final, crazy seconds of the Class LL championship, that belief carried Prep to an electric and emotional 51-50 victory over Westhill Saturday night at the Mohegan Sun Arena.

"The greatest thing about this team is, they believed. They stuck with the system and the pieces eventually fell together," Redgate said. "A great testament to a good program is, are the boys getting better as the season goes on? And we definitely started jelling, started playing much better together and the boys really had fun. This will be a memory they'll cherish for the rest of their lives."

If they can clearly remember it, that is, because the last 12 seconds certainly were like a blur. With Prep leading by one and with 12 seconds left, Nolan went to the free throw line for a one-and-one that would have given the Jesuits a three-point cushion. He missed. What happened next? Westhill fought to get the ball up-court, Prep players were battling to try and get a stop, Vikings' star point guard Jeremiah Livingston was being double-teamed and was denied the ball.

Finally, with the final seconds ticking away, Westhill's Vashon Natteal took a contested shot from the right corner. It missed, which started a huge Prep celebration at midcourt.

"The only mindset, from everyone was, get a stop," said Nolan, who scored 12 points. "Get a stop, you can't do anything else. I missed the free throw but we're still leading and I have to play defense. We had to fight until that final whistle."

From the moment Featherston went down in late December, that's what Prep did, they fought. Sophomore Patrick Harding started getting significant minutes, as did junior guard Matt Gerics and senior Joseph DeGennaro. The Jesuits turned into the 15 Musketeers, all for one and one for all.

"This is by far, the most `team-oriented' team in the state," Nolan said. "We all share the ball. We don't have anyone that averages 30 ¦ we all score around 10 to 15 points. When Ray went down at the beginning of the season, all six of the seniors went to him and told him we had his back. We had him tonight and we're state champs."

Still it wasn't easy. Redgate had to constantly reinforce the message that Prep could be special, really special, despite the injuries and the setbacks.

"I think that, when any player goes down, what you do is just believe in the boys, You fill them with confidence, you work in practice that their fundamentals are sound and that they know how to handle stressful situations," Redgate said. "We knew that being a good program, everyone was giving us their best night. So we had to play as a team. It's all about unselfishness. I think that ultimately, we have no superstars. To their credit, all the boys really bought into playing unselfish basketball and playing defense."

And it was defense that won the day for the Jesuits. In the fourth quarter, with the championship on the line, Prep allowed just six points.

"These boys were fighting for their lives," Redgate said. "Last year admittedly left a tough taste in our mouth but we really stuck together."

And they believed.

celsberry@ctpost