No. 3 New London girls edge No. 2 East Haven 66-63
New London — The question for coach Holly Misto following third-ranked New London High School's 66-63 girls' basketball victory over No. 2 East Haven on Tuesday at Conway Gymnasium:
How, each season seemingly, does New London graduate its most dynamic player or players and then return the next season only to be, well, just as dynamic?
"I think the players that have been here have set a precedent now," said Misto, whose team is now 3-0 with wins against two of the perenially most talented teams in the state in Capital Prep and East Haven, featuring Nebraska-bound guard Makenzie Helms.
"Their leadership shines through to the younger players. That's just the way they are," said Misto, also heralding New London's feeder program. "They take care of each other ... from when Charee (Osborne) was here, India (Pagan), Cora (Sawyer), Rosi (Nicholson) and Lei-Lei (McClellan). Even when Lexus (Childs-Harris) was here (the year prior to Misto's arrival), she took care of Jada (Lucas) and India when they were freshmen."
And so New London's victory over the Yellowjackets paved the way for an early-season No. 1 ranking when the new GameTimeCT Top 10 poll is released in the new year, with No. 1 Mercy and No. 2 East Haven both falling.
Not that the poll matters on Dec. 18. But really? No. 1?
"New London people have always been a family," New London senior Tai Pagan said. "We always welcome any new player. We're not selfish. If someone's hot that night we know that and pound the ball to them."
"We know we all have a common goal," said Spencer Roman, also a senior. "We can get anything done if we work our strengths and pull each other up."
The Whalers got 29 points, six rebounds and five steals from freshman Joniyah Bland-Fitzpatrick, including 20 points in the first half, against East Haven (2-1). Xaryia Melendez had 12 points and 12 rebounds, Pagan 12 points and six rebounds and Roman a team-high four steals.
New London led 51-40 on a front-of-the-break basket by Melendez to start the fourth quarter, but Helms, who finished with 33 points, took over for East Haven, scoring 12 points in the final quarter. Helms tied the score 61-61 with 49.2 seconds remaining on a drive to the basket.
But the Whalers, who had not trailed since East Haven scored to lead 2-0, had every answer.
Pagan, as her instincts dictated, dove in a pile for a loose ball with 35.6 seconds left and ended up drawing a foul from Helms, her fifth. Pagan made both free throws to give New London back the lead at 63-61.
Bland-Fitzpatrick pulled off a steal and a layup with 13.1 seconds to go and, after a basket by East Haven's Angelina Munoz, New London's Burns made one of two free throws for the final margin with 1.4 seconds to play.
"In practice, we're used to taking tough, last-minute shots," Pagan said of the tie-breaking free throws, explaining that Misto has been putting them in live situations all week with the game on the line.
"Tai has saved the whole team from running all week," Roman said. "All week in practice, Tai literally has been hitting them."
New London led 19-11 after one quarter, holding Helms to three points, and held a 34-29 edge at halftime. Pagan scored the final two baskets of the third quarter to push the lead to 49-40.