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BRANFORD - The defending champions were on the brink of being sent home from the Southern Connecticut Conference tournament Saturday.

But sixth-seeded Wilbur Cross made some clutch free throws and one huge steal in the final second to defeat No. 3 seed Shelton 56-53 in the quarterfinals at Branford High.

Darius Esdaile (15 points) made three trips to the free-throw line with less than a minute left, making only one each time, but on the last trip, gave Cross (15-7) the lead for good, 54-53, with 11.3 seconds left.

“I’ve been struggling with free throws the whole season,” Esdaile said. “I have to breathe and focus on my free throws and keep my elbow in.”

Then Cross was able to double-team Shelton’s Peri Basimakopoulos (team-high 25 points, including a tying 3-pointer with 16 seconds left) and force a turnover. This time Jovan Taylor from Cross was fouled with 3.9 seconds left.

“That last play where I got the steal, Coach Kev made that call on the sideline to double-team (Basimakopoulos) on the sideline. So, I just went and made the play.”

Said Shelton coach Brian Gardiner: “We were trying to get it to Belade and open it up. They denied him the ball. Peri got it. When they doubled him, Belade was open. When he started to spin, I couldn’t get a timeout out of my mouth (to call before the turnover occurred).”

Taylor redeemed himself for blowing a breakaway dunk minutes earlier by making both free throws to give the Governors a 3-point lead.

“I’m proud of him. A week ago, he might have gone in the tank and we wouldn’t have gotten any more out of hum,” Walton said. “I’m really happy he redeemed himself.”

Cross will get a third chance to try and knock off its Elm City rival Monday night in the semifinals. No. 2 Hillhouse, which eliminated No. 7 Xavier, awaits for the 7:45 p.m. showdown at the Floyd Little Athletic Center.

“This is why you come to Cross. This is what we want,” Walton said. “If we are going to win this championship, we are going to go through the two best teams in the conference. This is what we are waiting for.”

As for Shelton, which had won 17 of its last 18 coming into the game, this wasn’t about just making a good showing.

Gardiner said: “I told (the players), ‘This was not one of those games where it was, Hey, we played them tough. That was not our mentality. We weren’t coming in here just to hang around with Wilbur Cross. We were coming in here to beat them. It wasn’t a moral victory. But I couldn’t be more proud how hard we played and how much we hustled. We played mostly with just five guys and we were flying around the court. It takes a pretty good conditioned team to do that for 32 minutes.”

Shelton took its first lead at 41-40 early in the fourth quarter on Belade’s basket. Basimakopoulos had six points early in that period as Shelton built on its lead.

Cross retook the lead but Basimakopoulos’ heroics were not done. He banked in a 3-pointer with 16 seconds left, the final touches on a night where Cross couldn’t slow him down.

“Peri is awesome. You look at Peri and think, ‘He can’t be that good. He’s not that tall, he’s not that strong, he’s not quick, but he has the heart of a champion. He plays as hard as he possibly can and does everything he possibly can to get us the win. That’s all he wants,” Gardiner said.

Said Walton: “He’s as good as advertised. We owe him that level of respect (to double-team him on the steak late).”

WILBUR CROSS 56, SHELTON 53

WILBUR CROSS (11-7)

Darius Esdaile 1 1 4-8 9, Jayvon Taylor 5 0 2-2 12, Jaleem Sayles 2 0 0-0 4, Daquan Goodwin 0 1 0-0 3, Dereyk Grant 7 2 5-8 25, Jacari Douglas 0 1 0-0 3

SHELTON (17-5)

Brian Belade 3 0 9-10 15, Peri Basimakopoulos 4 4 5-6 25, Melvin Kolenovic 2 0 2-2 6, Mike Callinan 2 0 0-0 4, Gavin Rohlman 1 0 1-2 3, Vin Defeo 0 0 0-1 0

WILBUR CROSS 11 12 17 16 — 56

SHELTON 6 16 14 17 — 53