Michael Wright might be listed as a 6-foot-5 forward on the roster, but the Fairfield Warde senior is still a point guard at heart.
“He still thinks of himself as a guard,” Fairfield Warde head coach Ryan Swaller said. “I’m still trying to get him to realize he’s a forward.”
In fact, it wasn’t until his sophomore year that Wright started shooting up to his current height.
“I didn’t know I was going to get this tall,” he said. “So I grew up learning how to play guard. That’s all I did before I got to high school.”
That might explain why Wright seemed so at ease leading the Mustangs to the Fairfield Prep Holiday Classic championship with a performance on the perimeter typically reserved for players much closer to the ground.
Wright connected on a game-high five 3-pointers, including a game-winner at the buzzer to lift Fairfield Warde to a thrilling 52-49 victory over Notre Dame of Fairfield in a back-and-forth defensive struggle Friday night at Alumni Hall.
Junior Earl Coleman scored on a put-back of a missed jumper by Tre McPherson (five assists, three steals) to tie the game 49-49 with 8.8 seconds left.
After a timeout, Warde (3-2) inbounded over mid-court on the left sideline and got the ball into Wright’s hands in the center of the floor. Wright was looking to drive to the basket for the tie, but Notre Dame junior Daniel Upchurch (13 points) ran through a screen by senior guard Matt McTague (16 points) and forced Wright toward the left sideline.
But Wright would not be denied.
With time running out and no room to shoot, the left-handed Wright fell back to his left and hoisted a half-hook shot over the out-stretched arms of Upchurch that swished through the net as the buzzer sounded, setting the Mustangs off on a wild celebration while leaving the Lancers stunned.
“It was an awkward shot, but I felt comfortable taking it,” said Wright, who finished with a team-high 17 points to earn tournament MVP honors. “I had a lot of confidence taking it. But I’ve never had a game-winning shot before. I didn’t know what to do, so I just took off. My teammates thought I was going into the locker room and not coming back.”
Notre Dame head coach Vin Laczkoski knew Warde was going to try to get the ball into Wright’s hands for the final shot, and Upchurch defended it as well as possible. With one of Upchurch’s hands stuck squarely in his face, Wright used his height to go over the top for the winning basket.
“Dan Upchurch was that close,” said Laczkoski with his hand out-stretched. “How can you not like that effort? You have to give (Wright) all the credit. He made a great shot.”
Wright showed he could make a long-range shot under pressure after connecting on another head-spinning buzzer-beater 3-pointer at the end of the third quarter. Wright almost didn’t get it off after falling down and losing possession of the ball for a moment. But Wright got to his feet quickly, picked up the ball and drained his shot from the top of the key to give Warde a 39-36 lead.
“I thought the third-quarter buzzer-beater was harder than the last one because I fell and hit my knee,” Wright said. “I knew I had to get up and get it off as quickly as I could.”
The inside presence of Notre Dame senior Arkel Miles, who led the Lancers with a game-high 19 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks, made Swaller’s decision to set Wright up for the final shot an easy one.
The result was perfect, even if it didn’t match what Swaller drew up on the chalk board.
“Once Michael caught the ball, I had a good understanding of what he was going to try to do. I thought he would try to get to the basket, not shoot a fade-away three. I wasn’t planning on that,” Swaller said. “But the fact is, he’s been playing so well for us, in that situation you’ve got to get him the ball.”
Notre Dame led 32-25 after Miles and Upchurch led the Lancers on a 8-2 run to open the third quarter.
But Warde responded with a 14-4 run to end the quarter, including five points by senior center Sal Siciliano (11 points, 10 rebounds) and 3-pointers by McTague and Wright in the final minute. McTague, who was named to the All-Tournament team along with Miles and Upchurch from Notre Dame, nailed four 3-pointers and helped spark a fantastic defensive effort by the Mustangs.
After the third-quarter run, sparked by a solid effort off the bench by Sebastian Brogan (two steals, two assists), Wright hit another 3-pointer to open the fourth then scored off a nice feed by Siciliano to cap a 6-2 run that gave the Mustangs a 45-38 lead.
Notre Dame responded with a 7-2 run that eventually helped the Lancers tie the game before Wright stunned everyone in attendance.
The Lancers will now turn their attention toward repeating as SWC champions.
“The good news is we’re 4-2 and not 2-4,” Laczkoski said. “We’re also 1-0 in the league. As long as our so-called superstars wake up, we’ll be a good team.”
Warde, which denied the Lancers access to the paint behind the play of Siciliano while doing a great job breaking Notre Dame’s press defense, heads into the meat of the FCIAC schedule bursting with confidence.
“We had a lot of close losses last year, so it’s nice to be on the other end of one like this,” Swaller said. “This shows we’re starting to understand what it takes to finish off games and play a complete 32 minutes.”