Howard White should have been thinking the worst as the Norwalk basketball team used a 22-3 run spanning the second and third quarters to take a 36-26 lead in Tuesday night's battle of FCIAC upstarts. But Westhill’s head coach knew better.
Westhill teams of the past, including those ultra-talented outfits led by Tony Dobbinson and Chris Walters, might not have had the mental fortitude to come back after getting smacked in the face with such an avalanche of momentum.
But this version of the Vikings appears to be composed of that special genetic material that simply will not allow them to quit or stop fighting.
White wasn’t the least bit surprised as Westhill came storming back behind the play of its tenacious defense and the offensive wizardry of sophomore guard Jeremiah Livingston, out-scoring Norwalk 28-12 over the final 10 minutes to post an exciting 63-55 victory at the Westhill High School gym.
Norwalk (5-2) led 43-35 with just under two minutes left in the third, but Westhill finished the quarter on a 7-2 run to pull to within 45-42. That’s when Livingston took over, scoring 14 points in the fourth to help the Vikings out-score the Bears 21-10 in the final frame.
Westhill improved to 6-1 with the victory, but most importantly for White, showed the ability to dig deep in the face of adversity.
“The main thing is, we’re playing good basketball, and this helps us in the league,” White said. “I was talking to some coaches before the game and said, win or lose, this game is going to show us where we’re at. I just felt overall, this is where we need to be.”
With an average height of just 6-feet, this is the smallest team White has had in six years as head coach. At one point in the fourth quarter, the Bears had the three tallest players on the court in 6-5 sophomore Roy Kane, 6-5 senior Saeed Soulemane and 6-2 sophomore Zaire Wilson. But what the Vikings lack in size, they make up for with tremendous quickness on the defensive end.
Westhill pressured the Bears all night with its full-court press and matchup zone, forcing 26 turnovers, including 15 in the second half. The Vikings had just 13 give-aways of their own.
“We know teams are going to make runs,” White said. “But as long as we play good defense, we know we can come back. In the third and fourth quarters, that’s when we really picked up the pressure.”
Livingston, an emerging star in the FCIAC who led the Vikings during a recent win against Harding, was unconscious in the late minutes. Livingston scored on a powerful layup over Kane to put the Vikings up 50-49 with 3:30 left then poured in 10 points over the final 3:02, including a 4-for-4 effort from the foul line over the final 1:23, to help put the game away.
“He’s just been playing good basketball,” White said. “We wanted him to step up. He did it Friday night at Harding and he did it again tonight. He was huge tonight.”
Just like the majority of his teammates, Livingston is not tall.
But he plays like he’s 6-5, whether it’s following his own miss to collect a rebound, putting up a well-timed runner with just the right amount of arc, or reaching into a lane for a steal, Livingston knows how to get every inch out of his frame.
Seniors Yveson Cassamajor (13 points, seven rebounds) and Guyveson Cassamajor (eight points, seven rebounds) and freshman C. J. Donaldson are mirror images, and that’s what makes Westhill so tough. It’s almost like there’s five of the same player on the court at the same time.
“I think we’re just very aggressive on defense,” Livingston said. “I think we’re finally starting to prove that we’re a very good team.”
Norwalk has already proven that this season, but head coach Tom Keyes felt as if this was a step in the wrong direction.
Jabari Dear was outstanding early on, scoring nine of his team-high 18 points in the second quarter. Seven of that came during an 11-0 run at the end of the frame, including a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
Kane, one of the top young players in the FCIAC, scored 14 points to go along with eight rebounds and two assists while Soulemane shook off an early injury to his hand, one which put him on the bench for most of the first quarter, to finish with eight points, a team-high 12 rebounds, three assists and two blocks.
Wilson gave the Bears some added punch in the paint, scoring six points in the second half.
Keyes simply was not impressed by any of that.
“Hats off to them, but if we don’t play hard, we’re not going to win on the road,” Keyes said. “I don’t think we played good defense. I don’t think we played good offense. I have to be pretty critical of my guys tonight. I can take some responsibility as their coach. Maybe I didn’t have them ready to play tonight, but we’ve got to get better.”
Even after the second-half run by Livingston and the Vikings, Norwalk was still very much in the game, getting to within 55-53 on a basket by Soulemane. But Dear was called for a technical foul after making a comment to the officials on a turnover in the corner. Livingston hit both of the ensuing foul shots to make it 57-53 with 1:23 left, and after a foul on Kane moments later, Yveson Cassamajor hit one of two free throws to make it 58-53. Westhill had total control after that.
“That (technical foul) was huge,” White said. “I didn’t even know what happened. All I heard was No. 14, and I know I didn’t have a 14 on the court, so that was good.”
This was a game of runs. Westhill started out with a 9-4 lead and Norwalk came back to get to within 13-11 at the end of the first quarter.
Westhill opened up a 23-14 lead in the second with the help of 3-pointers by Yveson Cassamajor and Livingston.
Norwalk responded with a 22-3 run to take a 36-26 lead, including a 3-pointer by Kane, his first of two, and four points off the bench by senior forward Luke Sweeney.
Westhill pulled to within 43-42 with a 15-5 spurt at the end of the third, including a 3-pointer by Guyveson Cassamajor off a dish from Livingston. Trailing 49-46 in the fourth, the Vikings scored seven straight points to take a lead (53-49) it would not relinquish.