Norwalk rallies late and stuns New London girls 55-53 to win Class LL basketball title

Mohegan — New London coach Holly Misto stood outside the New London locker room and talked about how proud she was of her team after Saturday’s CIAC Class LL girls' basketball final.

In the background, just a few feet away, came sounds of sobbing and wailing — even with the doors closed.

New London scored the game’s first 12 points, but couldn’t put Norwalk away.

New London led by as many as 15 points, but couldn’t put Norwalk away.

It all paved the way for Norwalk senior Naeva Rene's layup with 2.7 seconds left, giving the top-seeded and unbeaten Bears their only lead of the day and a most improbable 55-53 win over the second-ranked Whalers before 5,089 at Mohegan Sun Arena.

“It stings,” Misto said. “It hurts.”

The Whalers vaulted to that early 12-0 lead, opened a 33-18 advantage with 1 minute, 6 seconds left in the first half, and took a 47-36 lead into the fourth quarter.

New London would hold the lead for all but 45 seconds, but was outscored 19-6 in a fourth quarter that saw the Whalers convert only three baskets and commit nine turnovers.

“Norwalk was upping the pace because they were picking us up full-court man,” Misto said. “That obviously increases the pace of the game. We normally like to run, so that’s okay with us. They were trying to get us out of our offensive sets. They took Jayden Burns out of the game, I don’t know for how long, but I noticed it in the fourth quarter. They were denying her the ball.”

Freshman Joniyah Bland-Fitzpatrick had 14 points and seven rebounds, senior Xaryia Melendez scored 16, and Burns, a sophomore, added scored 11 points for New London (25-3). Senior Spencer Roman added six assists.

Junior Belinda Hunte had 15 points, five rebounds and four assists while senior Ashley Wilson scored 12 for Norwalk (28-0), which won its third state title and first since beating Norwich Free Academy 47-45 in the 2000 Class LL final.

“We came this far and we didn’t come this far to lose, so we just let out hearts out,” said Rene (five points, seven rebounds, and three blocks).

The Bears were the only Connecticut team to beat the Whalers during the regular season when they rallied for a 49-47 win on Jan. 26. New London's other loss was to South Kingstown (R.I.), 45-43, on Jan. 2.

The LL final had similarities to the team’s first meeting as Norwalk trailed in that game 34-23 with 5:34 left in the third quarter.

“I think that sometimes they don’t know any better,” Norwalk coach Ricky Fuller said about his team’s poise. “They don’t think in the moment. They just play and they just react.”

Junior Anaijah Morgan (four steals) forced a turnover that led to senior teammate Sanaa Boyd making two free throws to cut Norwalk's deficit to 51-46 with 3:04 left on Saturday. Another turnover resulted in Hunte making two free throws to cut Norwalk’s deficit to 51-48 with 2:35 remaining.

The Bears got the ball back and ran an inbounds play with 1:43 to go. Wilson, Norwalk’s catalyst, was wide-open and made a 3-pointer to tie the game at 51.

Melendez made a layup to give New London its final lead, 53-51, with 1:27 left.

Norwalk missed a shot, Bland-Fitzpatrick got the rebound, and took off on the break with under a minute left. Morgan reached out and made contact with Bland-Fitzpatrick in the back near the New London bench. Bland-Fitzpatrick then collided with Melendez, fell, and lost the ball.

It turned out to be a critical sequence because New London senior Tai Pagan (eight points, eight rebounds) fouled out trying to keep Wilson from getting the loose ball with 45 seconds left, and Wilson made both free throws to tie the game are 53-all.

"I thought at the end (that) Fitzpatrick got intentionally fouled right in front of my bench; pushed in the back,” Misto said. “Next thing you know, Tai Pagan is picking up a fifth diving for a loose ball. That was very, very significant."

New London turned the ball over one last time with 29 seconds left, setting up Rene’s buzzer-beater.

“That’s a kid (Rene) who started playing basketball in ninth grade," Fuller said. "To make the game-winning shot her senior year in the state championship, all praises to her.”

Misto said, “I told (my team) the sun is going to come up tomorrow. Your parents are waiting for you. They’re still going to love you and they’re going to be proud of you. The whole town, the whole city is proud of you. You can’t always win.

“I have great kids and a great staff.”

n.griffen@theday.com

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