DANBURY — Tension and pressure in sports tends to get magnified when playoff time rolls around. While the stakes aren’t as high in the regular campaign — when there is always another game to bounce back — down-to-the-wire nail-biters at any juncture of the campaign provide a little taste what potentially will come in the postseason.
Newtown High School’s girls’ basketball team had a pair of close-to-the-finish contests this past week: A 41-39 overtime win over visiting Notre Dame-Fairfield on January 17 and a 43-38 setback to visiting Pomperaug of Southbury in a game played at Western Connecticut State University’s O’Neill Center the next night.
Whether or not being involved in such tight games will pay dividends for the players remains to be seen, but it certainly can’t hurt.
“We’re taking the right strides as the season progresses,” said Newtown Coach Jeremy O’Connell, whose team carried a 4-6 record through its first ten contests after a 1-4 start.
One of the keys to recent improvement is in rebounding success, and it isn’t just one player pulling down rebounds.
“It’s everybody — everyone’s rebounding very well.”
In the win over Notre Dame, Newtown saw the Lancers come back from six points down after three quarters to force OT. The Nighthawks hit just three of 11 free throws in overtime, but it was enough to get by.
“We survived on Friday,” O’Connell said of his team winning that game.
The coach noted that his team was solid throughout most of the matchup with Notre Dame — “We played very well in such long spurts,” he said — but had a couple of lapses that didn’t prove costly. “We were able to overcome that and I think that was phenomenal.”
Mali Klorczyk had four of Newtown’s five points in OT, and led the way with 18 in the game — including six on a pair of 3-pointers — and Cassie Ekstrom and Sarah Lynch both added seven points.
Notre Dame had won three of four games and Newtown dropped the Lancers to an identical record of 4-6 overall.
Against Pomperaug, Klorczyk again led Newtown’s offense with a dozen points. Ekstrom, Lynch, and Haley Ryan scored eight, seven, and six, respectively. That balanced scoring attack was enough to keep Newtown in the game almost all the way until the final horn.
After a strong defensive stand, the Hawks trimmed a deficit from three to two on a Lynch foul shot. It was 38-36 Pomperaug with 1:34 to play. Ekstrom came away with a steal but the Hawks immediately turned the ball over. The Panthers added to the lead with some clutch foul shots, and more turnover woes prevented Newtown from getting any closer in the final minute of play.
Despite the loss, O’Connell said he was pleased with his team’s effort against a tough Pomperaug squad, which improved to 8-3 this winter. O’Connell noted that it was a tough end to the week for his squad, playing for the second time in as many nights — on a longer court at WestConn than the Hawks are accustomed to — and on the heels of taking exams.
Newtown was scheduled to face the Panthers again three days later, in Pomperaug, but anticipated snow bumped the game to the next night, January 22. O’Connell said it doesn’t matter if the teams face each other twice in a span of a few days or several weeks apart.
“It’s a good rivalry. They know what we’re going to do and we know what they’re going to do,” he said.
Newtown is scheduled to play three straight games on its familiar gymnasium floor at the Hawks Nest beginning with Oxford’s 7 pm visit on Friday, January 24. Then it’s another back-to-back scenario with nonconference opponent Cromwell coming to town on January 27, followed by a visit from South-West Conference rival New Fairfield the next night — both at 7 pm.