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Montville - You wouldn't ordinarily expect Craig Parker to be so effusive with his praise on such an occasion.
Parker, the New London High School boys' basketball coach, has made a career of saying his team plays for state championships only.
Except this particular Eastern Connecticut Conference tournament title, New London's sixth straight in its 10th consecutive appearance, was a good one Friday night.
"It doesn't get any better," Parker said after his team received the championship trophy. "As the season went on, we came together. Toward the latter part of the season, we became a cohesive unit. I'm really happy for this team and these kids."
New London, the No. 3 seed in the tournament, held off a late charge by No. 5 Norwich Free Academy to win the championship game 52-39 at a gym filled to capacity at St. Bernard.
Two nights after an emotional 78-76 semifinal victory in overtime over ECC Large Division champion Woodstock Academy, the No. 2 seed, New London got 24 points and 17 rebounds from Most Valuable Player Keith Porter to vanquish NFA.
The Whalers (16-7) start three sophomores, one of whom, DeAnte Bruton, made the All-Tournament team along with Porter after scoring 27 points in the semifinals and 10 more against NFA.
It was the sixth time New London and NFA have met in the finals in the last 10 years, with New London winning five of those.
"This is my biggest ECC championship," said Porter, who played in the shadow of Kris Dunn, now playing for Providence College, during last year's ECC-winning run. "All the other years we were always bigger, faster, stronger. I played the back role. This one's the biggest to me; I had to be a leader.
"I think now we're finally starting to be a part of that (New London) tradition."
NFA, which last won the title in 2007, also took a difficult road to get the finals, topping No. 4 Windham 50-46 in the quarterfinals and No. 1 Ledyard in Thursday night's semifinals, 57-49.
The Wildcats had their semifinal game Wednesday canceled due to wet court conditions at St. Bernard, meaning they would need to win back-to-back games in order to claim a title. NFA had the enthusiasm for the tough draw, but perhaps not the legs, finding it hard to make a shot.
New London led 30-19 at halftime and 41-24 at the end of three quarters, when Bruton made two straight shots and De'Vonta Robinson converted an offensive rebound to help the Whalers stretch their advantage.
"It's a championship game, nobody's trying to miss a shot out there," NFA coach Neal Curland said. "It was just a bad shooting night. It could be nerves, but I don't know because we played with a lot of energy.
"... I'm so proud. So proud of these kids. They're hurting right now, but nobody expected us to be here."
Curland said the Wildcats (15-9) have reset their lineup several times this season, including when Marcus Outlow returned from an injury he suffered during the Class LL state championship game during football season.
Outlow finished with 16 points in the final and Denzel Lancaster had 10. Outlow scored 32 points in the semifinals. The Wildcats pulled within 47-39 down the stretch against New London, but couldn't get a series of shots to fall, including two straight layups, something which characterized the game.
Curland, asked if playing back-to-back days hurt his team, said he doesn't want to use that for an excuse.
"It's a pleasure and a privilege (to be in the game)," Curland said. "We wanted to win so badly."
Outlow and Lancaster received All-Tournament honors, as did Woodstock's Chris Lowry.
"The pressure is on us every year," Parker said of his team, which along with NFA will begin play in the Class LL tournament on Monday. "That's who we are.
"... The state is LL this year. It's going to be very tough. Well, we'll see what happens. But this is a nice win for us, a nice accomplishment."