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Late Saints rally carries them to Division I finals

Mar. 13—WEST HARTFORD — If nothing else, this was the night to ponder the walls of the home gym. Specifically: If there are any state championship banners hanging in them. This was the game to reiterate the need to perhaps genuflect before them in honor of how difficult they are to capture.

Example: the plight of St. Bernard in Wednesday's CIAC Division I state semifinal. The Saints, who in the previous six days barely squeezed past athletically gifted Crosby and Kolbe Cathedral, had one day to prepare for a drastically different style: precise, methodical Ridgefield, a perennial FCIAC and state title contender.

And this: Another hour-long bus ride to play a team with but one loss during the regular season. Ridgefield's one loss? At St. Bernard in December.

In the end, the Saints did what they've done all season: tough circumstances be damned. And this excellent season rolls on, following a 48-45 win at the University of Hartford's Chase Family Arena. St. Bernard (23-3) will play undefeated and top-seeded Notre Dame of West Haven in the finals at 8:15 p.m. Sunday at Mohegan Sun Arena.

"This feels great," St. Bernard junior Amyre Gray said. "All of us came together."

The Saints not only endured but prevailed in the most physical game of the season, which could have been measured by first downs as much as points.

"We knew going in the kind of team they have and how they play," Gray said. "The previous games we'd played (against quicker teams) messed us up in the beginning. It was difficult."

Gray led the Saints with 22 points, including a 15-footer with 1:15 left that gave his team its first lead, 44-43. Curtis Marshall had 10.

St. Bernard trailed 41-34 midway through the fourth period before rallying late, thanks in part to senior Colin O'Leary, who hasn't logged many minutes this season. But O'Leary scored the Saints' next five points.

"Colin was huge," St. Bernard coach Mark Jones said.

"What Colin did means the world," Gray said. "This could have been his last game."

It's hard to fathom how Jones could have prepared his team better for what they encountered. St. Bernard played perhaps the state's toughest schedule, including East Catholic twice, Ridgefield, Malden (Mass.) Catholic and Northwest Catholic in the regular season on top of Crosby and Kolbe in the playoffs. Now they get undefeated Notre Dame.

The Saints, who were still in single digits late into the second period, still trailed only 25-18 at halftime. Gray scored 12 of St. Bernard's 18 points, including a late 3-pointer that cut the lead to seven.

Six different players scored for Ridgefield in the first period. The Tigers led 16-8 and by as many as 12 in the half.

In the first game, Notre Dame of West Haven needed sophomore Landon Krygler's game-tying 3-pointer as time expired in regulation to force overtime. The Green Knights, coached by Connecticut College graduate Jason Shea, escaped in double overtime with a 72-71 win over Notre Dame of Fairfield.

It was merely the second time all season Notre Dame of West Haven failed to win a game by at least 10 points.

m.dimauro@theday.com