Stonington's Solar reaches 400 career wins in Class M tourney opener

Stonington coach Paulla Solar works the sideline during an ECC tournament game against East Lyme on Feb. 15. Solar earned her 400th career victory on Monday night when the Bears defeated Berlin 59-45 in the first round of the CIAC Class M tournament. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
Stonington coach Paulla Solar works the sideline during an ECC tournament game against East Lyme on Feb. 15. Solar earned her 400th career victory on Monday night when the Bears defeated Berlin 59-45 in the first round of the CIAC Class M tournament. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

Stonington — She paced and stomped her foot and changed defenses for the first part of the night. Then, for the second portion, Stonington coach Paulla Solar sat in a chair, a bouquet of flowers in her arms, settled in amidst all of her players.

Solar, in her 26th season as the Bears' girls' basketball coach in two different stints covering more than four decades, earned the 400th victory of her career Monday night as Stonington began play in the Class M state tournament.

Stonington beat Berlin 59-45 in a hard-fought game much in the character of the woman, Solar, who now sat, alternately wiping tears from her eyes and chuckling as she soaked up a “This is Your Life” moment in the form of a congratulatory video featuring many of her former players.

“I'm just really appreciative of everything they did to make this a special night. I really worked these kids; I think they understand what it's all about,” said Solar of her current team, then addressing the video, sometimes funny, sometimes sentimental.

“Through it all, the tough games, the tough practices, I feel good that they have some silly memories. I'm sure they weren't silly then. I love hearing the stories.”

Stonington senior guard Kate Hall also reached a milestone, scoring 24 points to eclipse the 1,000-point mark for her career. She needed 18 entering the game, the final home appearance of her career and what could have been her final game, and knocked down numbers 18 and 19 on a layup to end the third quarter, which gave the Bears a 43-37 lead.

Aliza Bell had 13 points and 21 rebounds and Izzy Yarnall had 12 points, 13 rebounds and two blocked shots, as the 14th-seeded Bears (15-7) controlled the post against No. 19 Berlin (14-10).

Stonington will next play at No. 3 St. Paul in the second round of the tournament Thursday.

Before all the fanfare, though, there was the matter of stopping Berlin from hitting from 3-point range. The Redcoats, despite not scoring a field goal for the first 6 minutes, 21 seconds, swished six 3-pointers by the end of the first half and tied the score 23-23.

That's when Solar used her best coaching voice, she said, to implore her team to come out and guard the shooters on the perimeter.

“The kids were worried about having them drive on them,” Solar said. “We talked about it at halftime, 'That has to stop.' You have to play defense with your feet. They were playing it safe. … If you're a basketball player, you have to be able to stop the drive and stop the 3.”

Stonington took the lead for good with 4:02 remaining in the third quarter on a three-point play by Kate Johnson, one of a number of fleet-footed guards for the Bears, ahead on a fast break.

Johnson was falling down when she released the shot. On the ensuing free throw, she leaned a little as the ball hung on the rim, willing the ball to give her the roll, which it did as Stonington led 33-30.

Berlin had scored twice in the final minute of the third quarter before Hall snuck back, all alone on a fast break for a layup and her 1,000th point.

Stonington then got the ball back to start the fourth quarter and got a basket from Miranda Arruda, all in all finishing with nine straight points, built off the Hall layup, that gave them a comfortable enough 50-37 lead with 5:23 remaining.

“It was a perfect night,” Yarnall said. “I feel like it was just the occasion. We had to rise to the occasion.”

“Tonight's really special,” said Hall, who had tears in her eyes following the win. “I'm just so excited for coach Solar. She makes me emotional. … It's been my goal since freshman year. I wanted to be on that (1,000-point) banner. But I also wanted to win. When you think, 'win, win, win,' you get the points.”

Solar is now 400-185 with a pair of state championships. She coached the Bears from 1974-80, 1982-83 and started her present tenure in 2002.

“This couldn't happen to a more deserving person,” former Stonington Gatorade Player of the Year Heather Buck, who will be inducted this season into the Connecticut Women's Basketball Hall of Fame, said from the television screen of Solar.

Former point guard Morgan Rein held up pieces of memorabilia from her time at Stonington as she spoke of her memories, including a few of the losses.

Said Rein: “There's no one I would have rather spent that time with.”

v.fulkerson@theday.com

 

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