New London rallies to win Appalachian Classic for third straight year
Fairfield — It was a high school girls' basketball game of which every possession seemed to serve as its own miniseries and in which New London trailed by five in the fourth quarter.
But as has happened quite often for the Whalers in the last magical year, despite a few heart palpitations Friday night in the championship game of the Notre Dame Appalachian Classic — perhaps even more than a few — the end result was a New London victory.
New London outlasted Notre Dame 54-51 in the dramatic final, surviving a short bench due to an injury to Xaryia Melendez, a couple of 3-point field goals by Notre Dame's Brittany Fulton delivered on a rainbow, and a ton of tension-filled trips to the foul line.
“My blood pressure needs to come down right now,” New London coach Holly Misto said.
Rosi Nicholson earned tournament Most Valuable Player honors for the Whalers, finishing with 13 points, seven assists and three steals, and teammates Tai Pagan and Cora Sawyer joined her on the all-tournament team.
Pagan led the way with 15 points, 11 rebounds and three blocked shots, Leilani McClellan added 12 points and Cora Sawyer had eight points, eight rebounds and three steals, as New London remained unbeaten at 6-0 and lengthened its winning streak to 14 games, dating back to a Valentine's Day loss last season to Norwich Free Academy.
It was the Whalers' third straight Notre Dame tournament title.
“We know not to lose our composure. Panicking turns into turnovers and you want to limit as many turnovers as you can,” Nicholson said. “We're there for each other. I play for my teammates; I don't really play individually.
“… My freshman year we lost (in the tournament) and since then we haven't lost. Coach said she didn't want to come all this way to lose a game.”
Notre Dame led by four with 2 minutes, 52 seconds to play on a three-point play by senior forward Gabrielle Joseph, who scored the 1,000th point of her career earlier in the game.
McClellan scored to pull the Whalers within 49-47 and Pagan made one of two free throws to make it a one-point deficit at the 1:38 mark. Nicholson then scored to give New London the lead, but seconds later Notre Dame's Zuquila Mbachiantim found herself all alone on the weak side of the basket for a layup that gave the Lancers the 51-50 margin with 51.3 seconds to play.
Misto called a full timeout to set up the offense against Notre Dame's press, which initially caused a jump ball, with the Whalers retaining possession.
McClellan was fouled with 37.2 seconds left and swished both free throws for a one-point lead and Sawyer and Pagan each added a free throw in the final seconds to seal things for New London.
Notre Dame took its last timeout with three seconds remaining, but the Lancers turned the ball over, with New London's Pagan holding it tight as time expired.
“They never give up,” said Misto, whose roster has a different look from last year's Class LL state championship team without graduated all-staters India Pagan and Jada Lucas, yet still finds a way. “They don't panic. They've been in big games. They know that a minute on the clock is an eternity.
“Notre Dame had a terrific post player and a terrific point guard. But wouldn't you rather play in that kind of a game if you're a kid? They have to be confident.”
An example of why Misto's blood pressure was on the rise throughout the game:
At one point in the third quarter, the ball appeared to roll the length of the floor out of bounds off a Notre Dame player's foot, only to have it called Notre Dame ball.
A few moments later, with the score tied at 35, New London's possession consisted of the Whalers being fouled twice, but not being in a shooting situation, and Sawyer nearly turning the ball over, but tying it up, on which the Whalers kept the ball.
New London didn't score on that trip down the floor, however, resulting in a 3-point field goal by Notre Dame's Fulton which gave the Lancers a 38-35 lead.
Yamani McCollough finished with 17 points for Notre Dame, which is 2-2 following losses to state Class LL powers Mercy and New London, and Joseph had 13. Both made the all-tournament team.
New London, which plays at East Haven in its next game Wednesday, reached the championship game of the tournament with a 57-23 win over Thomaston in the semfinals. Notre Dame advanced with a comeback victory over Hand, 63-52.
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