How do you overcome an opponent’s stingy defense and win despite going six-plus minutes between points in the third quarter and being held to a season-low point total?
By playing shutdown defense, limiting the team without a second-quarter field goal, and holding the opposition to its season-low point total along the way.
That’s exactly what Newtown High School’s girls’ basketball team did in a 37-30 win over South-West Conference foe Pomperaug of Southbury, at NHS on January 8.
Newtown remains unbeaten in conference and state play (8-1 overall and 3-0 in the SWC), and the Panthers fell to 6-3 (2-1).
Both teams struggled with their field goal shooting, in large part due to tough defense. Newtown’s Jackie Matthews had a lot to do with the theme of this game, closely guarding Pomperaug standout Maggie Lee and holding without a field goal and to merely a free throw. Matthews is regularly assigned to marking the opposing squad’s top scoring threat and previously held Weston’s Katherine Orefice to only a field goal (as part of a seven-point performance) earlier this year.
“She relishes that role and just loves it. That’s what she’s all about,” Newtown Coach Jeremy O’Connell said.
The Nighthawks trailed 8-7 after one quarter of play before going on a 12-0 run to begin the second stanza to claim a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
Carlie Smith finished a fast break, taking a long pass from Cyleigh Wilson, to start the game’s pivotal run.
Nicki DaPra’s bucket from beyond the left elbow of the 3-point line extended the lead to 12-8. Matthews’ defensive rebound led to Amy Sapenter’s basket and a 14-8 lead with 5:44 left.
Pomperaug couldn’t slow the Hawks after the stoppage. Sapenter’s straightaway 3-pointer after another NHS stop on defense, was followed by DaPra’s long field goal, set up by a Smith steal. Newtown led 19-8 with 3:45 to play in the half.
The Panthers were held without a second-quarter point until 4:22 elapsed in the stanza. The Panthers’ only points of the quarter came on six free throws, all in succession, trimming the Newtown lead to five.
Wilson’s pass to Matthews for a fast break hoop with 15 seconds left, accounted for the last points of the half. It was 21-14 Newtown at the break.
Pomperaug couldn’t gain any ground in the third and trailed 30-23 heading to the fourth.
Newtown scored the first points of the final quarter when a DaPra cleaned up, scoring on a putback 33 seconds in for a 32-23 advantage.
The Hawks didn’t score again until Wilson’s finger roll with just 1:11 to play, ending a 7-0 Panthers’ run that made it a two-point contest with 1:24 left.
Leading 34-30, the Hawks made a defensive stand and broke the full-court press. Wilson drained a front end one-and-one free throw with 34 seconds left and the Panthers failed on a chance to make it a one-possession game again.
Smith had ten points, Sapenter nine, DaPra seven, and Wilson six. Wilson added five assists and four rebounds. Sapenter and Matthews had five and four rebounds, respectively.
“Hopefully games like this can help us down the stretch. The close game against a very good, quality program can hopefully help us,” O’Connell said.
The NHS coach added that his squad did not have to grind out many close battles last winter.
“I think it kind of hurt us at the end of the year,” he said.
Newtown went 17-3 in the regular season before advancing to the conference tourney semifinals and state playoff quarterfinals; both of Newtown’s elimination games were close ones, decided by a combined 13 points.
The Hawks have held two consecutive teams to 30 points. They defeated visiting Bunnell of Stratford 54-30, in a game in which the final score ended up deceptively-lopsided after being very close for three quarters, on January 4.
Newtown trailed the Bulldogs 14-12 after one quarter, took a 27-20 lead into halftime, and carried a 34-26 advantage into the fourth before putting some distance between the teams.
NHS outscored Bunnell 20-4 in the final stanza. DaPra scored nine of her game-best 20 points in the final stanza. Wilson scored nine, Sapenter had eight points, and Smith and Cailin Wilson each contributed five.