New London gets its rematch with Norwalk ... this time for Class LL title
Earlier this week, Norwalk coach Ricky Fuller was describing his reaction to the release of the Class LL girls' basketball state tournament bracket. His incredulous tone spoke volumes.
"I saw our bracket. I almost called the CIAC," Fuller said of the governing body for Connecticut high school sports. "Mercy? Are you kidding me? Hamden? Can I get a double-digit seed?
"When you get the title, that's why people break down and cry on the court. The kids have been playing since November and they don't get a break."
It all comes down to Norwalk and New London. Norwalk (27-0) is the No. 1 seed in Class LL and the top-ranked team in the GameTimeCT Top 10 poll. New London (25-2) is No. 2 in both. The teams met in a regular-season game on Jan. 26, with Norwalk coming away with a two-point victory.
They'll play again for the Class LL championship at 3 p.m. Saturday at Mohegan Sun Arena, both teams having cast aside all challengers for a spot in the finale.
Norwalk upended No. 32 Greenwich (70-28), No. 16 Staples (66-42), No. 9 Mercy (51-49) and No. 4 Hamden (62-54). Mercy was the defending Class LL champion.
New London began its journey with a win over No. 31 Darien (65-24), then took out No. 18 Amity (59-36), No. 7 Newington (48-35) and No. 11 Wilbur Cross (51-47) in Monday's semifinal round. Against Wilbur Cross, the Whalers trailed 47-43 with two minutes remaining before rallying, despite having two starters foul out, to score the game's final eight points.
New London has been to the championship game four times in six years and is in search of its third title during that time. Norwalk reached the final for the first time since making back-to-back appearances in 1999 and 2000, both times against Norwich Free Academy (the Bears lost to NFA in 1999, but won in 2000).
"I can't believe it," said New London senior Spencer Roman of the Whalers' dramatic semifinal victory, echoing Fuller's explanation of the emotions the tournament brings. "I didn't go to sleep; I had to watch the whole (replay) before I went to sleep."
"We're all so excited," New London senior Tai Pagan said at this week's CIAC championship luncheon at the Aqua Turf Club in Southington. "We want to play right now. ... We're planning on leaving it all on the court. We need to fix our mistakes (from last time)."
In the previous meeting between the teams, also played for the state's No. 1 billing, then-top-ranked New London held an 11-point lead early in the third quarter before Norwalk switched to a zone defense and limited the Whalers to just 16 points in the second half.
Norwalk's Jakara Murray hit the game-winning basket with 1 minute, 13 seconds to play and New London turned the ball over on its ensuing possession.
"It's the next game on our schedule," New London coach Holly Misto said, asked if there would be any carry-over from the earlier meeting. "We're a different team from January and so are they. You have to have the same mindset you do every game. Do what you do best.
"... It takes so much to get here. Everything has to fall into place with injuries and illnesses. It's emotional. You have to channel those emotions and be mentally focused."
Misto reiterated that it helps to have a "collective team with a collective goal" rather than one superstar.
The Whalers' starting lineup features three seniors in Roman, Pagan and Xaryia Melendez — all first team Eastern Connecticut Conference Division I all-stars — sophomore guard Jayden Burns and freshman guard Joniyah Bland-Fitzpatrick, who came through with the game-winning free throws with 22.8 seconds remaining against Wilbur Cross.
"We've played some tough teams this year," Pagan said. "I'm so proud. We're a young team. It took us a little bit of time to get the concept of team. We've come a long way."
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