Rich Kelly shoots Prep to basketball final

Rick Kelly (14) takes the ball to the basket. (Photo by David G. Whitham)

Rick Kelly (14) takes the ball to the basket.
(Photo by David G. Whitham)

Rich Kelly usually yields to a higher authority, but before a packed house and his Fairfield Prep basketball team facing elimination from the Class LL state tournament, the 6-foot junior drew strength from another familiar source.

“I left two (foul) shots short in the first half,” said Kelly, whose top-ranked Jesuits trailed No. 5 Hillhouse High from New Haven 33-22 after two quarters in the semifinal game at Shelton High.

“Then late in the game I looked up (from the line) and saw the whole student section rooting for me. That made it easier.”

The Prep student section gives Hillhouse High's foul shooter the business. (Photo by David G. Whitham)

The Prep student section gives Hillhouse High’s foul shooter  Christian Adams the business.
(Photo by David G. Whitham)

Kelly was a perfect 6-for-6 from the free throw line in overtime, and Prep weathered a determined bid by the Academics to earn a 59-57 overtime decision and advance to the state finals this weekend at the Mohegan Sun Arena.

Kelly said, “You see every single individual face out there and you realize they’re rooting for you that they’ve all got your back and you just want to do it for them.”

Prep (24-2) will play No. 2 Westhill of Stamford (21-1) on Saturday at 8:15 p.m. in the finals. For head coach Leo Redgate’s  Jesuits it will be their fourth trip to the title game in the last five years.

“When you’re playing good defense, momentum can change,” Redgate said of his team’s come back. “At halftime we said have fun, focus on getting three or four stops in a row, and leave it all out there.”

Prep outscored Hillhouse 12-2 in the third quarter to make it a two-point game, and the parade to the foul line began in earnest.

Prep finished 30-for-48 from the line; Hillhouse was 14 for 30 from the stripe.

Matt Gerics (2) is the man in the middle, getting in position to rebound with Hillhouse's Demetrius Smith and Joe Kasperzyk. (Photo by David G. Whitham)

Matt Gerics (2) is the man in the middle, getting in position to rebound with Hillhouse’s Demetrius Smith and Joe Kasperzyk.
(Photo by David G. Whitham)

“Last year I was a like a bench player on that team,” Kelly said of going to the finals. “This year is the  first year that I’m actually involved. It’s just amazing with all these guys — we’re like all brothers.”

The Jesuits made only 13 field goals in the game’s 38 minutes, including a trio of three-pointers.

Hillhouse put the ball in the net 17 times, four from beyond the arc.

“It felt like there was a lid over the basket,” Kelly said. “My teammates were so resilient.”

Kelly finished with 16 points, after going 13-for-16 from the foul line.

Thomas Nolan scored 13 points before fouling out with two-plus minutes remaining in regulation. Patrick Harding scored 12 points and Ryan Foley scored seven.

Prep trailed by six points with four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter and the Academics had possession.

Redgate said:

“I’ve seen their four corners for five years straight…And knew when we were down six with four minutes left they were going to spread the floor and that’s when we started to foul.

“Four minutes left….I honestly don’t think we had any other chance unless we started really going offense-defense (player substitution) and make them earn it from the line.”

“Our discussion at halftime  was loosen up, don’t play tight… I know this sounds corny, but I wanted them to have fun.

“I think we were very good at the end of the game, as far as making every shot they took very difficult.”

Hillhouse (21-5) was led by John Lewis (14 points), Troy Walters (11 points) and Aaron White (nine points).

The semifinal victory for Prep over Hillhouse marked its sixth straight victory over the Academics, three times this season.

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