HAMDEN — Newtown High School’s girls’ basketball team fought back from an 11-point deficit to take a short-lived lead, but the Nighthawks ultimately fell to host Sacred Heart Academy, 57-52, in a clash between 13-7 teams in the opening round of the Class LL state tournament on February 26.
No. 16 Sacred Heart advanced to face top-seeded Mercy in the second round and No. 17 Newtown saw its season end despite a valiant comeback effort, sparked by 17 Cassie Ekstrom points, 14 — including a dozen on four 3-pointers — from Erin Kenning, and 12 from Bridget Power.
This was an up-tempo battle from the start, and some NHS shooting woes in the early going and down the stretch coupled with a fast start by the Pacers were the difference makers.
“It’s what the state tournament’s all about,” Newtown Coach Jeremy O’Connell said of the high-intensity game.
Siobhan Fennell paced the Pacers with 14 points, and Micaela Montini and Alexis Iannone both dropped in a dozen.
Newtown cut several big Sacred Heart leads down to a handful of points in a play-from-behind first half, and finally seized the lead in the third quarter. Kenning and Power hit consecutive 3-pointers to erase a 43-37 Pacers lead, and then Newtown’s Maddy Good fought with a Sacred Heart player for a held ball. The possession arrow went Newtown’s way, and Ekstrom cashed in with a basket down low for a 45-43 NHS lead with 2:11 left in the third.
The Pacers reclaimed the advantage late in the quarter, and held a 48-45 edge heading into the fourth. Kenning’s bucket with six minutes to play gave NHS a 50-48 lead, but the Hawks then went on a 5:48 scoreless stretch, during which Sacred Heart slowly built a 57-50 advantage. Newtown’s tough defense kept the visitors in the game, and the Pacers didn’t take the lead until Kaliegh Putnam hit one of two free throws for a 51-50 edge with 2:56 left.
Down three points with a minute and a half left, the Hawks tried to tie the game but errant outside shooting and some missed foul shots in the final minute-plus allowed the Pacers to pull away. Sacred Heart’s Sabrina Schiano hit one of two foul shots, for a 54-50 lead with 55 seconds left. After she missed the second shot, Fennell got to the rebound and scored a back-breaker basket. Newtown finished the game just 8-for-22 from the foul line.
It looked, in the early going, as if this might not be a down-to-the-wire affair. Sacred Heart jumped out to 19-8 lead before back-to-back Kenning 3-pointers pulled the Nighthawks to within five. Newtown threw up a small handful of air balls in a sluggish start. “We were very stagnant at first and we settled for outside jump shots instead of going to the hole,” O’Connell said. “They came out with the intensity in the first quarter and we started playing with intensity after that and, you know, we took the lead and just couldn’t hold on — couldn’t make free throws down the stretch.”
The host Pacers led 22-14 after one quarter before the Hawks started to settle in, make their shots, and get to within 33-28 at the half. Sacred Heart opened the second half with the first four points to take a 37-28 lead but the Nighthawks never gave up.
“I’ve been pleased with the resiliency of this program the entire year. These girls are wonderful, special young ladies that [are] really something for this community to be proud of,” O’Connell said.
The Newtown Coach said he will miss his seniors, Sam Steimle, Good, Kenning, Kristiana Engler, and Power. “Those seniors have given everything. I love ’em. I’m just — I’m sad for the seniors more than anything else,” O’Connell said.
“It’s always good when the game comes down to the last few minutes,” said Ekstrom, adding that the result was disappointing because it marks the last time she will play with her senior teammates. “It was a lot of fun — a lot of memories.”