For nearly 32 minutes Thursday, the Staples High boys basketball team ran step for step with Westhill, the only squad left carrying a perfect FCIAC record.
Occasionally Westhill crept ahead, and Staples jumped right back, turning to its most dynamic threats on offense for a jolt. And just when it seemed the Vkings had done what they've done so many times this season, overcoming a 13-point deficit in the second half, the Wreckers made perhaps their loudest statement of the season.
Fueled by 23 points and a lockdown defensive effort from senior Peter Rankowitz, Staples pulled away in the final four minutes and upset Westhill 53-50 at home.
After the Vikings tied it 44-44 on a 3-pointer by guard CJ Donaldson with 3:53 to go, Staples put the ball in Rankowitz's hands and watched the swingman attack the basket. Rankowitz knocked down five free throws down the stretch to hold off the Vikings. The Vikings had a chance to tie it in the final seconds, but Evan Skoparantzas' 3 from the corner went long.
"We talk every day in practice about having a `next-play mentality.' We kept taking their punches and we came out on top," Staples head coach Colin Devine said. "It's just a credit to the kids' hard work."
Westhill, which trailed 22-13 at halftime, dropped to 14-2 overall and 13-1 in conference. The Vikings had won 11 straight since their last loss, 78-60 to Bassick on Dec. 26.
The Vikings got 17 points from sophomore guard Jeremiah Livingston and 13 (all in the fourth quarter) from Donaldson, but were unable to overcome a slow start.
"I'm very disappointed in our defense in the first half," Westhill head coach Howard White said. "We did not come out with the right frame of mind from a defensive standpoint. I clearly indicated and told them that if they're going to take a break, they're (Staples) going to go long. We didn't get back.
"But that didn't lose the game. What lost the game was the turnovers."
Staples, which has now won seven of its last eight games to move to 10-6 overall (9-6 FCIAC), played inspired from the start. Tied 9-9 after one quarter, the Wreckers pulled ahead with five straight points to open the second from guard James Frusciante. After Westhill answered back with a pair of buckets, the Wreckers closed the first half with a 9-0 run.
"Westhill, coming into our house, we had a big fan section and were looking forward to this game," Rankowitz said. "We wanted this one."
Frusciante scored 14 points for Staples, while senior forward Ross Whelan added 13.
"When you play the No. 1 team in the league and beat them at home, it's a great accomplishment for our basketball team," Devine said.
Staples opened up its largest lead of the game, 29-15, early in the third on a conventional 3-point play by Rankowitz, but Westhill quickly answered back. The Vikings heated up from the floor and went on a 16-6 run to close the third, cutting the lead to 35-31.
The Wreckers pushed the lead to as many as eight points in the fourth quarter, before Westhill stormed back to tie it 41-41. The Vikings, however, never took the lead.
"We came out with fire," White said. "But again, it didn't turn out our way like we expected it. ... We came out in the fourth quarter, and once again, a defensive lapse."
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STAPLES 53, WESTHILL 50
WESTHILL (14-2, 13-1)
Jeremiah Livingston 6 5-5 17 Terrell Middleton 0 0-0 0 C.J. Donaldson 0 0-0 0 Evan Skoparantzas 1 0-0 3 Luke Herritt 1 0-0 2 Yveson Cassamajor 2 0-0 6 Marquis Giddiens 0 0-0 0 Guyveson Cassamajor 0 0-0 0 Ariel DelaCruz 5 0-0 10 CJ Donaldson 4 2-2 12. Totals 19 5-5 50.
STAPLES (10-6, 9-6)
Jake Melnick 1 0-0 2 James Frusciante 5 3-5 14 Joe Greenwald 0 0-0 0 David Katz 0 0-0 0 Andrew Felman 0 0-0 0 Nick Esposito 0 0-0 0 Darryle Wiggins 0 1-2 1 Ross Whelan 6 0-2 13 Peter Rankowitz 6 8-10 23 Nick Ward 0 0-0 0 Alex Addessi 0 0-0 0. Totals 18 12-19 53.
WESTHILL 9 4 18 19 -- 50
STAPLES 9 13 13 18 -- 53
3-pointers: W -- Donaldson 2, Y. Cassamajor 2, Skoparantzas; S -- Rankowitz 2, Frusciante, Whelan.