No. 1 New London girls defeat Stonington 69-45
Stonington — Lest anyone think New London's path to No. 1 in the state's high school girls' basketball rankings has come easy ...
The Whalers faced another team Saturday in Stonington, also undefeated in its division of the Eastern Connecticut Conference, which had players just as willing to run the floor and just as likely to dive into a pile of knees and elbows for a loose ball.
New London, the top-ranked team in the GameTimeCT Top 10 poll, won 69-45, getting 16 points each from seniors Xaryia Melendez and Tai Pagan.
But it took some work.
"(The pace of the game) gives us a lot of chances to get the ball to each other and to hustle, not just standing still," said Melendez, a 5-foot-10 forward who added six rebounds and a team-high six steals. "I guess the hustle and effort was there. That's what it's all about."
"It wasn't easy," New London coach Holly Misto said. "We want to run. We like a fast-paced game."
New London is 10-1 overall and 2-0 in Division I of the ECC, where it is the defending champion. Stonington is 8-3, 3-0 in Division II, with both teams having lost to a common opponent in South Kingstown, R.I.
Both teams are also still fitting the pieces together, with New London adding junior Wendy Gethers, a first-year member of the Whalers, to the lineup for the first time. The Whalers also start another pair of first-year guards in freshman Joniyah Bland-Fitzpatrick and sophomore Jayden Burns.
Stonington, meanwhile, had two more post players than it did earlier in the week during a loss to Norwich Free Academy, adding Izzy Yarnall for the first time this season following an injury and Aliza Bell (illness) who came off the bench to finish with 10 rebounds and four steals.
New London got off to a quicker start, however, outscoring the Bears 12-0 over a four-minute span in the first quarter, capped by a pair of free throws from Pagan, to give the Whalers a 12-2 lead. Melendez and Bland-Fitzpatrick had four points each during that stretch and New London led 21-14 at the end of one quarter, getting a 3-pointer by senior Da'Jah Uzzle at the buzzer.
The Whalers had another 10-2 run to start the second quarter, with four points each by Gethers and Spencer Roman. New London's defense gave up just four points in the second, giving the team a 35-18 advantage at halftime.
But, and this was the part Stonington coach Paulla Solar would later praise her team for, the Bears weren't finished. Although it was unable to make up any ground on New London, Stonington continued to engage the Whalers in a running game.
New London outscored the Bears 34-24 in the second half, with Stonington's Miranda Arruda scoring eight of her 11 points over the third and fourth quarters. Kate Johnson added 12 points and three steals for the Bears and Zoe Ribeiro added 10 points and four steals.
"This was good experience for the (state) tournament. I don't think we're going to see anyone that quick and athletic," Solar said of New London. "I did not see one ounce of any of my kids quitting. It seems like Miranda and KJ never run out of energy, they just up it. ... We got a lot of work (done)."
Pagan added eight rebounds, six blocks and three assists for New London. Roman had 10 points and six assists and Bland-Fitzpatrick also hit double-digits with 10 points.
"The biggest thing that bothers me is we get steals and then turn the ball over," Misto said. "We're going to turn the ball over when you run as much as we do. ... We're working on some things."
Misto complimented Melendez, who also had 19 points in a victory Thursday at Woodstock Academy. Melendez was active on defense and also led the front of the Whalers' fast break late in the game.
"She played well. This was a nice game for her," Misto said.
"I will admit my defense and offense wasn't all there in the beginning (of the season)," Melendez said. "I'll put that on me. It's time to pick things up. Now we're starting to get into it; we're starting to add more plays. All the seniors, me, Tai, Da'Jah, Spencer, we try to help the other players. We tell them just to play Whaler ball."
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