New London girls beat Capital Prep 58-50 in opener
Hartford — Spencer Roman wasn't expecting the crowd noise Wednesday night, which she said went from virtual silence prior to the game — not even any warmup music — to one of the most hostile road environments the New London High School girls' basketball team has seen.
"It was a different atmosphere. And we have two girls who have never played varsity their whole life," said Roman, a New London senior. "It was definitely a crazy atmosphere."
Then Roman watched as Joniyah Bland-Fitzpatrick, who prior to this year was an eighth-grader at the ISAAC school, hit the first two baskets of the game.
"Two baskets in two seconds," Roman said.
And New London, ranked third in the state in the preseason GameTimeCT Top 10 Poll, toppled old nemesis Capital Prep 58-50 in the season opener for both teams, despite the pair of rookies starting in the backcourt.
Bland-Fitzpatrick made her Whalers debut, playing the bulk of the game at the point guard slot, with 27 points, once knocking down a pair of free throws with the Capital Prep fans singing their best chorus of "ohhhh, oh-oh-oh-oh-ohhhhhhh-oh."
Bland-Fitzpatrick and fellow newcomer Jayden Burns, a sophomore, started along with old reliables Xaryia Melendez, Tai Pagan and Roman, with the Whalers limiting Capital Prep to 18 points in the second half.
Pagan finished with 10 points, 16 rebounds and five blocked shots, while Roman had 10 points, 12 rebounds, three assists, three steals and four blocks, and Melendez added nine points and 13 rebounds. Burns went 2-for-2 from the foul line with 12.3 seconds left to put away the victory and Bland-Fitzpatrick scored at the final buzzer.
"I was pretty nervous," Bland-Fitzpatrick said. "It was really hard ... being a freshman and playing as point guard. I was all around, post, point guard, shooting guard, making plays, running out of bounds (plays)."
Bland-Fitzpatrick, who was knocked to the ground a few times during the game, said it wasn't so bad adjusting to the varsity, getting help from the older players on the team and the coaching staff in order to adjust.
"My friend Spencer," Bland-Fitzpatrick said, "even if I mess up, she'll yell but in a good way."
"I have all the faith in them," Roman said of New London's newcomers. "I want them to have that faith in themselves. We just have to keep working hard, keep working hard as a family."
Capital Prep took its first lead with 4:36 remaining in the second quarter on a basket by Ghynaia Morgan and the Trailblazers forged their biggest lead of the game at 32-25 on a pair of free throws by Morgan with 1:37 to go in the half.
New London cut into the lead before the half, however, with two free throws by Bland-Fitzpatrick and one by Melendez, making it 32-28, and the Whalers scored the first eight points of the third quarter to cap an 11-point run.
Pagan gave New London the lead back on an inbounds play from Roman and Bland-Fitzpatrick's drive at the 4:28 mark made it 36-32 in the Whalers' favor.
New London took the lead for good on an offensive rebound and putback by Bland-Fitzpatrick with 1:11 to play in the third and the freshman made it 46-42 to end the third quarter, going 2-for-2 from the foul line with 3.7 seconds remaining.
Capital Prep started the fourth quarter with a 3-pointer to pull within one at 46-45, but Pagan followed with an easy basket for New London to push the lead back to three.
"I was really disappointed in the defense in the first half. I challenged them to buckle down in the second half," said New London coach Holly Misto, whose team finished the regular season unbeaten last year and won the Eastern Connecticut Conference Division I tournament before falling in the Class LL quarterfinals.
"We have a freshman and a sophomore out there. They're our guards; they're running our offense. They're going to have to grow. Jayden showed a lot of poise hitting free throws at the end. (With Joniyah), it's just adrenaline; she's so excited to play."
Misto was asked whether the hustling, fearless freshman, Bland-Fitzpatrick, was just the type of kid to fit into the New London program.
Said Misto: "They're all my type of kids."