Girls’ Basketball Team Had Tremendous State Playoff Run
TRUMBULL — A terrific run to the Class LL State Tournament semifinals was enough to validate the success of Newtown High School’s girls’ basketball team this winter. The Nighthawks, coming off a win over Fairfield Warde in the quarterfinals, however, were hoping to take care of business against Warde’s cross-town rivals, unbeaten Fairfield Ludlowe in the semis only to fall 55-36, at neutral site Trumbull High on March 13.
“To get to a state semifinal is hard,” said Newtown Coach Jeremy O’Connell, whose team last got that deep three years ago only to have the season abruptly end due to the impact of the coronavirus; the Hawks previously went this far in 2012 when they won it all.
Typically a defensive-minded squad, the No. 3 Nighthawks found themselves in a high-scoring battle with No. 2 Ludlowe out of the gate. A trio of Bella Gerace 3-pointers in the opening eight minutes kept things close. It was 15-14 Ludlowe before the Falcons started a run to finish the quarter. It was 18-14 after one, and 22-14 a couple of minutes into the second stanza.
Newtown showed fight and came back to tie things with Macey Cuomo rattling home a mid-range jumper and Izzy Caron reeling off six straight points with a fast-break basket, putback, and pair of free throws to knot the score at 22 apiece with 3:22 left before halftime.
The Falcons took a 27-22 lead into the break and built on the lead in the third quarter. After Caron’s rebound and hoop pulled the Hawks to within three, the Falcons took off with a 9-0 run and established a 37-28 lead going into the fourth.
The Nighthawks hung around early in the fourth with Gerace setting up Caron for a 3-point play the old fashioned way, making the score 41-32 with 6:14 to play. A tightened defensive effort, quick passing, and accurate shooting led to Ludlowe pulling away. Ludlowe finished the game on a 14-4 run. The Falcons were 8-for-14 from the free throw line in the final quarter, sinking enough chances from the line to seal things.
“I’m impressed with their perseverance, the mental toughness — it’s just a group I love,” O’Connell said.
Caron led Newtown with 21 points, Gerace scored ten, and Cuomo logged four. Newtown’s defense was tough on the Falcons, particularly in the second and third quarters, holding Ludlowe to a combined 19 points in the middle two periods. Cuomo had four steals, Gerace and Ava Rochester each came away with two, and Allie Bradley and Caron both had one steal. Cuomo and Bridget McCleary both had six rebounds and Caron grabbed five.
In a 34-28 win over No. 11 and visiting Warde in the quarterfinals on March 8, the Hawks held the Mustangs to their lowest point total of the campaign. Gerace scored 15 points to lead the offense. It was a collective shutdown effort on D, led by Gerace, Caron, Bradley, Rochester, Cuomo, and McCleary. Newtown beat No. 19 Norwich Free Academy 36-19 in the second round after a first-round bye.
Warde led 10-7 at the end of one quarter and 19-17 at the half. Bradley blocked a pair of shots in the second quarter to help keep the Warde offense somewhat in check. It was in the second half that the Newtown defense really buckled down, limiting the Mustangs to a mere nine points over the course of final 16 minutes of game play. Some hard-luck rim-outs didn’t help the Mustangs’ cause but it was stellar marking by the NHS players that made the biggest difference.
Gerace opened the second-half scoring with a straightaway 3 for a 20-19 lead, one the Hawks would not relinquish. The score remained the same for more than two and a half minutes before a couple of Caron free throws extended the lead. Gerace had a key takeaway and layup and the Mustangs did not hit their first field goal until nearly six minutes had elapsed since halftime. The Hawks led 27-24 going to the fourth.
Neither team could score for 4:11 of the final period. Bradley’s basket finally ended the combined drought. Newtown led 30-24 with under a minute left and held Warde without any points in the quarter until there were just 41 seconds left. Gerace helped put the victory on ice with four clutch free throws.
Rochester scored seven, Bradley had six, Caron four, and McCleary two. Gerace logged a trio of steals, Caron had two, and Bradley and McCleary each had a theft. Bradley was a force near the basket with 16 rebounds and Rochester collected 12 rebounds; Cuomo and Gerace both recorded five rebounds.
“We played solid defense,” O’Connell said of the second-half effort, noting that the Nighthawks left Warde’s top scorers with too many open looks in the first two quarters.
The victory over Warde epitomized what Newtown basketball has been about, this year in particular: Playing tight defense and scratching and clawing for enough points to be in the game with a chance to win. Newtown’s season began with some setbacks early on in the form of preseason injuries, then lost captain Kristen Reisert to an injury during the regular slate.
“We believed in this group because we have all the pieces. We suffered some major injuries and other kids stepped up,” said O’Connell, whose team will graduate Reisert, Gerace, and Bradley.
Sports Editor Andy Hutchison can be reached at email@example.com.