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New London — Dave Cornish sat on the home bench in Conway Gymnasium for much of his adult life, contributing to all of New London's big green championship banners. But nothing, he said, could compare with his experience Thursday night in the region's home office for high school basketball.
Now Cornish has graduated from assistant at New London to head coach at Ledyard. And if there's a better story than Ledyard's revival — one win last year to 17 this year — it's that the Colonels advanced to the Eastern Connecticut Conference Tournament championship game Thursday inside this gym that's home to so many of his favorite sports memories.
And now, too, Ledyard has a chance to win the title tonight against top-seeded New London, the state's second-ranked team, the school a year ago that went undefeated with Cornish as the lead assistant.
Sixth-seeded Ledyard defeated No. 2 Waterford, 77-66, before the Whalers advanced to the championship game with a 73-64 win over Norwich Free Academy in the night's other semifinal.
"It's like a fairy tale," Cornish said.
The Colonels (17-5) lost to Waterford, the ECC Medium Division champion, twice during the regular season. But they limited Waterford center Nolan Long to nine points, all while Ledyard junior Thomas Whipple scored 31, including a halfcourt shot to end the first half.
Ledyard used forwards Darnay Gray (14 points) and Chris Gill (nine points) to surround Long, prompting the rest of the Lancers (21-2) to shoot threes most of the game.
"I was in front of him and Darnay was in back," Gill said. "I think we executed better tonight than we did against them during the regular season. Plus, we've started to gel as a team."
Geary McLeod led Waterford with 31 points.
The Whalers, meanwhile, played without center Malcolm Simmons and guard Doug Henton, who missed the game because of disciplinary issues. Henton said after the game he will return tonight. Simmons is out until Tuesday's Class LL state tournament game vs. Xavier of Middletown.
NFA (13-10) led most of the first half and came within five late in the third period. Chad Vincent led the Wildcats with 23 points and Marcus Outlow had 19.
But it was Vincent's hard foul on Kris Dunn late in the first half that got New London's attention.
"A lot of teams have been doing that," Dunn said. "You have to get over it."
Dunn had three fouls at halftime, including a technical foul stemming from the played involving Vincent.
Dunn finished with 31 points, while Keith Porter had 15 and Voghens Larrieux had 10.
Dunn, who was honored before the game with a banner on the ball saluting his status as a McDonald's All-American, said it would be a little strange seeing Cornish on the opposite bench tonight.
"He did a lot for us," Dunn said. "He has a great knowledge of the game. I still wish he was here. Instead, we'll be playing one of our family members."
New London coach Craig Parker said, "I really don't like coaching against one of my assistants. I get no thrill from that. Dave's done a nice job there. As a head coach, you want to see your assistants move on and do well. He's certainly done that."