Girls' Cagers Pull Out Hard-Fought Win In State Tourney Opener
The second round game between Newtown and Middletown has been rescheduled for 5 pm. Date of game, March 3, remains the same.
A buzzer-beating basket at the end of the first half and five quick points to start the third quarter had Newtown High School's girls' basketball team ahead 31-26 and apparently well on its way to victory in its Class LL State Tournament first round game against visiting Wethersfield on February 28.
The 13th seeded Nighthawks saw the No. 20 Eagles chip away and climb to within a basket at 36-34 midway through the fourth quarter, before holding on to sweat out a 44-38 victory - the 200th of Coach Jeremy O'Connell's career.
Despite seeing Wethersfield claw back to within a couple of points, "we still kept our composure and I'm really proud of that," said O'Connell, adding that when the game was tight in the South-West Conference Tournament semifinals against Bethel the week before, his team also got tight on the way to being defeated.
"As much as we want it, that was a real good learning experience," O'Connell said of the Bethel game.
Nicki DaPra led Newtown with 15 points, hitting four 3-pointers and adding a trio of foul shots, and Rylee Mulligan dropped in 11, including a trio of late freebies to help close out the win.
The Hawks went 11 for 30 from the free throw line in the game but, as O'Connell noted, hit just enough from the charity stripe to get the job done. After looking sharp offensively in the early going, Newtown overcame going dry from the field for a stretch of about a quarter and a half of game play from the early stages of the third quarter until midway through the fourth.
Mulligan scored on a drive to the hoop as time expired to close out the first half, giving Newtown a 26-16 lead at the intermission.
DaPra's 3-pointer, and Olyvia Shaw's hoop down low gave the Hawks a 15-point cushion about a half-minute into the third and it seemed as if the Hawks were well on their way to victory.
The Eagles fought to make it a 33-22 game and that's the way the score stood for several minutes. It was 33-27 after three quarters of play.
Mulligan's runner from straight on, 35 seconds into the fourth, for a 35-27 lead, represented Newtown's only points from the floor until Shaw took a pass from DaPra and scored in close for a 38-34 lead with 2:25 to play.
Wethersfield had closed to within a basket, in part, behind a pressuring full-court defense much like the Nighthawks often display. Wethersfield's Maeve Foley hit a 3-pointer and Nicole Gwynn had a basket to sandwich a DaPra free throw, making it 36-34 with 4:05 to go. As the lead shrunk, Newtown's defense rose to the occasion; players dove to the floor for loose balls, and came away with timely steals.
"Defensively, we played well all game and that's been our mantra all year," O'Connell said.
Cyleigh Wilson and Shaw had four and three steals, respectively, and DaPra led the way with nine rebounds.
Wethersfield trailed 39-36 and threatened to close to within a point or tie on back to back possessions, but DaPra went to the court to force a tie-up, and Shaw had a steal to help Newtown preserve its lead.
Mulligan hit a foul shot, and Alison Kelleher dove to the floor for another tie-up on the defensive end of the court. Wilson missed a couple of foul shots, but used her quickness to get the rebound off her second miss, was fouled again, and calmly sank both shots for a 42-36 lead with 38 seconds remaining to all but seal the deal.
Cailin Wilson and Shaw both scored five points, Cyleigh Wilson had three points, Jackie Matthews and Kira Smith both scored two, and Carolina Stubbs tacked on a free throw in the win.
Newtown moves on to play No. 4 Middletown, on the road, in the second round. The game will take place Friday, March 3, beginning at 5 pm.
The Hawks went 15-5 in the regular season, Wethersfield, out of the Central Connecticut Conference (CCC), went 13-7. Middletown, also of the CCC, boasts a 19-2 mark coming off an 85-52 toppling of No. 36 Manchester in the first round.
On paper, it would appear the Hawks have a tall order in front of them, literally and figuratively. "They're really good," notes O'Connell, adding that the Blue Dragons are led by 6-foot-3 University of Hartford-bound center Brielle Wilborn. But, as the Newtown coach points out, you never know. "That's why you play the game."