Norwich - While winning the Eastern Connecticut Conference tournament the last two seasons, Norwich Free Academy hasn't won an ECC Large Division girls' basketball title during that time, something of which the Wildcats are cognizant.
"We just practice playing hard," NFA sophomore Cebria Outlow said of the Wildcats' mentality heading into Friday night's game against ECC Large opponent Ledyard, who was also unbeaten in the division entering the game.
"We practice playing our hardest, don't let up. Our enthusiasm was just real good tonight."
Outlow finished with 18 points, 10 rebounds and six steals for NFA (10-1, 5-0) as it raced to a 17-point lead at halftime and defeated Ledyard 53-41. Ledyard (8-2, 3-1), last year's Medium Division champion, is in its first season in the ECC Large.
The coaches' assessments of how their teams began the game were polar opposites.
"We played exceptionally well in the first half," NFA coach Bill Scarlata said. "We pressured the guards. We didn't make it easy for them to see inside. And we had good positioning from our posts inside. They almost had to make a perfect pass to get it in there."
"The first minute we looked good," Ledyard coach Adam Baber said. "Then we went missed layup, missed mid-range, foul and we hung our heads. After that we just started playing timid."
Ledyard was down 21 points in the third quarter, with 6-foot-4 center Hannah Hutchins in foul trouble, when the Colonels went on a run. They outscored NFA 21-7 over the next 10-plus minutes, getting five straight points from Michelle Klinikowski, who first split a double-team then converted a three-point play to pull within 43-36 with 3 minutes, 45 seconds remaining.
NFA scored the next six points, however, to put the margin back in a more comfortable range.
Alyssa Velles added 14 points and eight rebounds for NFA, hitting a long-range 3-pointer at the buzzer to mark the end of the first half, pushing the Wildcats' lead to 32-15. Olivia Lane had eight points.
Klinikowski had 14 points and eight rebounds to lead Ledyard. Olivia DelGrosso had eight points, Hutchins seven points and nine rebounds and Ari Fustini six steals and seven assists.
Hutchins fouled out with 5:36 to go, soon followed by NFA's Olivia Ouellet and Lane.
Ledyard, though, finished 16-for-28 from the free throw line, unable to take advantage.
Outlow, meanwhile, showed off the improvements she's made in her game from a year ago when she a freshman with raw talent.
At 5-foot-10, Outlow - the sister of NFA football star Marcus Outlow, who received a Division I scholarship to play for Boston College - led the Wildcats in rebounding, as well as hitting a 3-pointer in the second quarter, making her a difficult matchup for the Ledyard defense.
"I worked on my game a lot," Outlow said. "I worked out with my brother, I played summer ball, fall league. My brother has an amazing influence on my attitude, just the way I carry myself."
Outlow said the Wildcats were "ecstatic" to start the game.
Scarlata said he'd like to find a way his team can play like that for 32 minutes, noting that Ledyard's comeback will give him fodder to make his team better in the long run.
He said in no way does this make NFA the favorite to win the ECC.
"We're still the underdogs," Scarlata said. "New London's very good, this team (Ledyard) is very good. There's a long way to go. We've still got East Lyme on the road, still got Ledyard on the road; we already had (East Lyme's Jenna) Schumacher go off on us for 22 in the first half.
"We have to improve. We played hard tonight, I just thought we got a little tired. It's a fun group, though."