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Branford - The celebration had already begun on the New London bench, coach Kerrianne Dugan clasping hands with her players, smiling broadly. Meanwhile, Lexus Childs-Harris, the Whalers' senior captain, was still being fouled and knocking in free throws to clinch the program's most historic victory.
For the first time in New London High School history, the girls' basketball team will play for the state championship, a game scheduled for next weekend at Mohegan Sun Arena.
Childs-Harris had 14 points, going 10-for-12 from the free throw line in the fourth quarter, as the fifth-seeded Whalers upended No. 1 Holy Cross 44-32 Friday in a Class M state semifinal game at Branford High School.
New London's opponent in the final will be determined today as No. 2 Cromwell takes on No. 6 Morgan.
"I forgot it was the first time ever," Dugan said. "I was trying to put it out of my mind today. … We've been talking about going to the Mohegan Sun since we picked teams at the beginning of the season, varsity and (junior varsity). That's the goal. Whenever we had a bad day, this is what I would talk about with the girls."
"For me, I just kept saying 'Why not us?'" said Childs-Harris, part of the New London program two seasons ago as it went 2-18 the year before Dugan's arrival. "Why can't we be the ones to make it to the finals? This is where we belong."
New London (23-4) took a 6-4 lead on a 3-pointer by Deanna McCarvell with 2 minutes, 24 seconds remaining in the first quarter and never trailed again, leading 25-13 at halftime and 27-20 after three quarters, despite being held to two points in the third quarter while running into foul trouble.
India Pagan picked up her third foul with 7:20 to play in the third and McCarvell her fourth with 5:20 to go in the quarter, leaving the Whalers down a pair of starters. New London got its only two points in the quarter when freshman Jada Lucas beat Holy Cross down the floor on the fast break for a layup to make it 27-16.
Still, New London didn't give up many points either.
The Whalers were facing a tandem of Holy Cross players, Kiera O'Donnell (Assumption) and Chelsea Houlihan (Chestnut Hill), who have signed letters of intent to play next season at the Division II level in college. O'Donnell, named Most Valuable Player of the recent Naugatuck Valley League tournament after scoring 48 points in three games, was limited to six points by New London sophomore Charee Osborne.
The Crusaders were 25-1 heading into the game, with their only loss coming during the regular season to Class LL finalist Lauralton Hall.
Houlihan led Holy Cross with 14 points and O'Donnell hit her biggest basket of the game, a 3-pointer with 6:08 remaining in the game to pull the Crusaders within 28-23.
With time growing short, however, Dugan called a timeout and set up a play on which Lucas drove and dished to an open Pagan waiting under the basket, pushing the lead back to seven, Osborne hit a key foul line jump shot at the two and a half minute mark and then the Whalers got the ball to Childs-Harris.
That's when the real celebration, among old-time Whalers enthusiasts and current students of the school alike - who all rushed the court in the end - could begin.
Childs-Harris scored New London's last 10 points. Osborne finished with 10, eight in the first half, and 19 rebounds while Pagan and Lucas had seven each. Pagan also had 13 rebounds
"That's why the ball's in her hands," Dugan said of entrusting Childs-Harris in the closing moments. "She's our senior leader. She's captain for a reason."
"It feels amazing. It feels great," Osborne said. "We had to work for it. We had to practice like we were champions this week. … (On defense,) I knew to keep my hands low. Stay low (on O'Donnell). No reaching."
New London used its speed and its offensive rebounding prowess behind the 6-foot-2 Pagan and 5-10 Osborne to go on an 11-0 run in the second quarter, pushing the lead from 10-7 to 21-7, with all five starters scoring during that time. The Whalers outscored the Crusaders 17-9 in the second quarter.
Said Childs-Harris: "Defense is defense. We always focus on defense and today's no different. … It's overwhelming. I'm just overwhelmed with joy, I guess."