Jan. 20—WATERFORD — This was a night with one program striving to show how far it has come and the other trying to return to where it used to be.
And when it ended, Wheeler coach Stephen Bailey — tie loose, sportcoat discarded and sweating more than his players — earned one of the biggest and sweetest victories of his young career.
The Lions made 10 of 14 free throws in overtime and took down Waterford 67-62 before a lively crowd at the Francis X. Sweeney Fieldhouse.
"It was just the ability to show we can play with anybody," Bailey said. "Waterford had a great tradition and a rich history. (Waterford coach) Bill Bassett does a great job here. Two state championships. You've got to show him respect. We're trying to get ours now at Wheeler."
Kyle Kessler, who led the Lions (8-3) with 26 points, made his sixth 3-pointer midway through overtime to give his team a 61-59 lead — and the lead for good.
"I think we made a bigger name for ourselves by coming here and beating them," Kessler said.
From there, Zane Brewer (16 points), Keith Zardies (10 points) and John Krysiewicz all made key free throws late.
"It feels real good, especially after last night," Bailey said, alluding to a loss at Killingly. "We played hard, with intensity and for each other."
Waterford (5-4) led by four points entering the fourth period. The Lancers trailed late before Parker Spencer made a runner in the lane with two seconds left to force overtime.
Spencer led the Lancers with 16 points. Juan Morel had 13 and Quinn Speller 10.
In spite of the loss, the Lancers still share the lead with Windham in Division II of the Eastern Connecticut Conference. The Lancers and Whippets play for the outright division lead Friday night in Windham.
Meanwhile, Wheeler, which will compete in the state's Division IV Tournament, has already defeated Waterford, Branford and Guilford this season — all significantly larger schools. Wheeler won 15 games in the regular season last year and made the semifinals of the ECC Division II Tournament. The Lions returned all their starters from last year.
"This group has a lot of experience, probably 50 or 60 games under their belt," Bailey said. "We told the kids tonight that the first team to 55 would win."