New London routs NFA to win second straight ECC Div. I title
Plainfield — The all-tournament team featured a flood of New London players in home white jerseys Wednesday night, Rosi Nicholson, Xaryia Melendez, Spencer Roman and Tai Pagan. And there could have been even more.
That's how well the top-seeded Whalers supported each other during a decisive 57-28 victory over No. 2 Norwich Free Academy in the Eastern Connecticut Conference Division I championship game at Plainfield High School, New London's second straight title.
“We have so many players that can hurt you,” New London coach Holly Misto said. “That's what a good team is all about.”
“We all pitch in together,” said Nicholson, named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player, as she finished with 12 points, five rebounds, five assists and four steals, the second straight game she led the Whalers in points, assists and steals. “We play for each other. We don't want to go home. We just play for each other.”
Leilani McClellan, a senior guard, also had 12 points, including five straight to end the third quarter, when New London (23-0) took a 44-19 lead on a McClellan 3-pointer. Roman had 11 points, six rebounds and five assists and Melendez 11 points, as well, while Pagan needed just four points, but finished with nine rebounds and three blocked shots.
“(Roman) is letting the game come to her,” Misto said. “McClellan has been playing great basketball. She comes off the bench … she's like the sixth man. I couldn't be prouder of her.”
The last time New London played NFA, a 41-27 victory in Norwich 13 days ago, the Whalers held a team meeting the following day, having not played as well as they hoped.
“I was worried. I was worried today, I really was,” Misto said.
It's likely this matchup won't require a meeting.
New London built an 11-2 lead early, behind five points by Cora Sawyer and four from Melendez and got it to 19-8 after one quarter.
NFA's Makayla Poirier-Vaughters, the fifth player named to the all-tournament team, had back-to-back baskets to pull the Wildcats (13-0) within 13-8, but Roman, who has played some of her best minutes of the season during the ECC tournament, answered with two free throws, followed by a steal and a layup.
Nicholson and McClellan scored in the final minutes of the first quarter, pushing the Whalers' lead back to 11, and they made it 27-13 at halftime. New London added a 13-2 run in the third quarter, getting six points from Nicholson and feeds from Nicholson to McClellan and Roman during that quarter.
“We just took it as another game,” said Roman, who had 19 points in the ECC quarterfinals and nine in a semifinal win over Stonington. “The last two times (against NFA), we didn't play our best. (This was) way better. We don't want to get ahead of ourselves. We just want to work hard and be humble.”
“We just put it all on the court,” said Nicholson, a senior, who managed a little dance of jubilation when it was mentioned the Whalers won their second straight title after NFA won five in a row before that. “I'm feeling good. My first two years, they took from us. It was hard. For us to take it, it feels so great.”
New London, the top-ranked team in the GameTimeCT/New Haven Register state poll, is also the top seed in the upcoming Class LL state tournament, where the Whalers will also defend their title.
Misto was asked if there was pressure on her team headed into the ECC final, with a lot of weighty expectations and an undefeated record.
“None of that matters,” Misto said. “No. 1 doesn't matter. Undefeated doesn't matter. Our record (going into the Class LL tournament) is zero.”
Vaughters had eight points for NFA, the No. 21 seed in the Class LL tournament, where the Wildcats will play Monday at No. 12 Wilton.
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