Staples’ Gavin Rothenberg turns the corner on a Fairfield Warde defender during Staples’ 57-55 come-from-behind overtime win in the state tourney semifinal Wednesday. / Photos by Andy Hutchison
Chris Zajac catches a pass in the paint to set up for a scoring opportunity.

By Andy Hutchison

STAMFORD — Trailing by 18 in the fourth quarter, the No. 7 Staples High boys basketball team pulled off an astonishing overtime victory Wednesday in the Division II State Tournament semifinals — earning a ticket to play in the championship game.

The Wreckers used a relentless, turnover-causing full-court press and clutch shooting — inside and from the outside — to come from behind and stun No. 3 Fairfield Warde 57-55 at neutral site Westhill High School in Stamford.

Adam Udell had the game-deciding steal and basket late in overtime in Wednesday’s semifinal.
Charlie Honig on the move for Staples.

The game went to overtime even at 48 and was tied 55-apiece when Warde called timeout with 15 seconds to go. The Wreckers had the Mustangs right where they wanted them — inbounding the ball against Staples’ suddenly impenetrable defense. Right on cue, Adam Udell stole the sideline inbound pass and converted a go-ahead layup with 10 seconds left. 

Cody Sale makes a strong move to the basket.

Warde’s desperation attempt to force double OT was denied and the Wreckers move on to the championship game.

Staples will meet top seed St. Bernard of Uncasville in the title tilt at 6:15 p.m. Sunday, March 19, at the Mohegan Sun Arena.

The Wreckers may be underdogs, at least seeding-wise, but after what transpired Wednesday night there is no sleeping on this crew.

“We never gave up,” said center Chris Zajac, adding that Assistant Coach Bob Buswell told the players, despite being on the wrong end of a 36-20 game heading into the final eight minutes, to keep their heads up and keep at it. “We forced a couple consecutive turnovers and that was it from there,” he said.

The Wreckers applied a full-court, double-teaming press throughout most of the final quarter of regulation time. A handful of Warde turnovers in a span of less than a minute before the mid-point of the fourth led to Staples getting back in the game.

“When you have a great group you just never know what’s going to happen — and they kept fighting and they were confident and I’m at a loss for words,” Staples first-year Coach David Goldshore said.

“It was just a barrage of turnovers and competing. … It was a team effort,” Goldshore said. “This is such a great team. They compete every day and they care for one another.”

“This has been our goal from day one and it worked out for us,” said Udell, adding that Staples had the mindset of just competing once Warde seemingly seized control.

“The goal was not necessarily to win — just to show we belonged there,” he said.

Caleb Smtih connects on a clutch 3-pointer to help spark Staples’ comeback. / Photo by Mark Sikorski

After Cody Sale hit a 3-pointer to make it 41-27 with 5:48 to go, Goldshore called for timeout.

Goldshore said the coaches emphasized to the players that they needed not to focus on the large deficit, but to keep chipping away. He asked the teammates to get the deficit under 10 with four minutes remaining. 

Three forced turnovers in just 30 seconds led to Staples cutting the deficit at the time of the timeout in half. Gavin Rothenberg’s 3-pointer brought Staples to within 41-34 with 5:08 left.

Caleb Smith cashed in off yet another turnover to make it 41-36 with 3:36 to go. 

Warde finally broke the press, but Staples’ defense wouldn’t break and forced a turnover on Warde’s offensive end of the floor. That led to a Smith 3-pointer, making the score 41-39 with 3:01 left.

The Mustangs finally broke the Staples seal and scored with 2:47 to go, but Sale drove to the basket, scored despite a foul, and added a clutch free throw to bring the Wreckers within just a point at 43-42 with 2:07 remaining.

Cheer team showing support as the Wreckers pulled off a dramatic overtime victory over Fairfield Warde.

Warde got the next four points for a five-point lead, but Rothenberg hit a straightaway 3 with 1:33 remaining to make it 47-45.

The Mustangs hit one of two free throws with 47 seconds left and Smith drained a game-tying 3-pointer from the left corner with 37 seconds left. Zajac came up with a crucial shot block just before the final buzzer and the showdown went to extra time tied at 48.

In the four-minute OT period, the Wreckers got the scoring started on — what else — a steal and layup by Rothenberg. After another defensive stand, Sale drove to the rim and scored for a four-point lead with 2:32 to go.

Warde tied things before Zajac scored in close for a 54-52 Staples advantage with 1:32 left. David Melson hit a go-ahead 3-pointer for the Mustangs. It was 55-54 Warde with 1:15 left. Sale hit one of two free throw attempts to tie the game with 1:04 left.

The Wreckers had trailed 23-14 at the half and were held to six points in the third quarter, but surpassed their three-quarter point total with 28 in the wild fourth period.

Zajac finished with 17 points, Sale had 14, Rothenberg 10, Smith eight and Udell six.

Andy Hutchison has been covering school sports — including Staples athletics — as well as news and feature stories in Fairfield County, since the 1990s. Learn more about us here.