No. 1 New London defends its ECC Division I title against rival NFA on Wednesday

New London's Tai Pagan rejects a shot attempt by Stonington's Kate Johnson during Saturday's ECC Division I tournament semifinals at NFA. The top-seeded Whalers play No. 2 NFA for the title on Wednesday night at Plainfield. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
New London's Tai Pagan rejects a shot attempt by Stonington's Kate Johnson during Saturday's ECC Division I tournament semifinals at NFA. The top-seeded Whalers play No. 2 NFA for the title on Wednesday night at Plainfield. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

Norwich Free Academy coach Bill Scarlata went to scout New London recently against Pomperaug, a pretty respectable high school girls' basketball program in itself with a McDonald's All-American nominee. New London breezed to a 72-33 victory.

“It was a clinic. It was kind of like watching UConn going through the AAC,” Scarlata said, referring to the UConn women's basketball team and its conference dominance.

“He's better than he says they are,” New London coach Holly Misto said later of NFA, told of Scarlata's high praise. “They're a lot better than they were at the beginning of the season. They are a really good team. They always are.”

And so the two rivals, top-seeded and unbeaten New London (22-0) and NFA (13-9), making its seventh straight championship appearance, are set to meet in the Eastern Connecticut Conference Division I tournament final at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Plainfield High School.

New London is the defending ECC Division I tournament and Class LL champion and current top-ranked team in the state poll. NFA has won 18 times on this stage in Scarlata's 26 seasons as the Wildcats' head coach.

That game will be preceded by the ECC Division II tournament final at 5:30, with No. 2 Lyman Memorial (14-8) facing No. 4 Waterford (13-9).

“Of course, I think the kids are looking forward to it,” Misto said of the championship matchup. “We're expecting a battle.”

“I think we need to keep our composure and keep our head in the game,” New London senior guard Rosi Nicholson said.

New London, the Division I regular-season champ, won both matchups this season against NFA, topping the Wildcats 50-31 on Jan. 19 in New London and 41-27 Feb. 9 at NFA.

On Saturday, NFA earned its spot in the championship game with a 17-point, 11-rebound effort from Makayla Poirier-Vaughters, as the Wildcats held Bacon Academy scoreless in the second quarter on the way to a 39-24 semifinal victory.

The Wildcats started two freshman guards in Sarah Ericson and Jenissa Verela and a pair of sophomores in Aaliyah Brittian and Zoe Furman-Cox, joining senior guard Kayley Ericson. And that's not discounting the importance of Poirier-Vaughters, who is also a sophomore.

NFA started out 1-6 with losses coming to the likes of No. 2 Mercy, No. 4 RHAM and Stamford, which is also receiving votes. The Wildcats later lost twice to top-ranked New London and suffered a defeat against Hamden, another state power.

Yet the Wildcats came of age, winning eight of their last nine games.

“They listen. They pay attention to detail,” Scarlata said. “This group has a pretty good basketball IQ. It's a pretty athletic group. They're all getting better. The guards will get better as soon as they get stronger. I like their attitude, athleticism, enthusiasm. We've had great practices this year.

“I just want to be competitive. I'm setting this year up for next year and the year after that.”

New London, meanwhile, beat Stonington 63-33 in the semifinals, with Nicholson's 15 points, seven steals and four assists leading the way. New London trailed 13-6 with 2:16 remaining in the first quarter before going on a defensively fueled 44-7 run.

“Our motto is ‘Hate to lose more than you love to win’ and you can’t win without defense,” Nicholson said. “Defense is what wins championships.”

Throughout the Division II tournament, Waterford has enjoyed a height advantage.

Marilyn Childs, who is 5-foot-11, had 17 points for the Lancers in a 54-17 win over St. Bernard in the quarterfinals and in Saturday's 50-35 victory over top-seeded Plainfield, 5-9 Julianna Bonilla had 16 points and 10 rebounds and 5-11 Bekah Sanders 12 points and 14 rebounds.

Waterford also recently returned 5-10 Olivia Pacheco from a concussion.

“We want teams to try to match up with our size,” Waterford coach Brian Fleming said. “We've been holding teams to just a few field goals the last few games. … We've got to keep them off the free throw line (Plainfield was 14-for-27), but when you play hard you're going to foul.”

v.fulkerson@theday.com

New London's Rosi Nicholson (2) drives past Stonington's Kate Hall during Saturday's ECC Division I tournament semifinal game at NFA. The top-seeded Whalers won 63-33 and will play No. 2 NFA in Wednesday's final at Plainfield. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
New London's Rosi Nicholson (2) drives past Stonington's Kate Hall during Saturday's ECC Division I tournament semifinal game at NFA. The top-seeded Whalers won 63-33 and will play No. 2 NFA in Wednesday's final at Plainfield. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

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