New ECC format, freshman Hillman bring success to Montville

Montville — Montville was coming off one loss this week where there wasn't exactly an abundance of things which went right. Now, Thursday, the Indians were off to another start that was not ideal.

Montville rebounding machine Maya Hillman, the six-foot freshman, picked up her second foul just 3 minutes, 25 seconds into the game and went to the bench. Then, following a 3-pointer by Wheeler's Sam Caster about a minute into the second, Wheeler held a 17-9 lead.

"Just a little bit," said Hillman, asked if she was frustrated by the situation. "I knew I wouldn't get any more (fouls). I had four earlier in the season against Fitch and I kind of just watched myself. ... It's all mental. I told myself to just have confidence."

Montville trailed by that same 17-9 margin when Indians coach Becky Alfonso went back to Hillman 1:28 into the second quarter. Hillman, true to her word, wasn't assessed another foul the rest of the night as Montville's girls' basketball team caught up to and then surpassed Wheeler by a 37-23 margin.

Hillman had yet to score when she went to the bench, but finished with 16 points, 15 rebounds, 11 steals and five blocked shots. Senior Lauren Velazquez added 10 points, including three 3-pointers.

The Indians, which moved from Division II to Division IV this season in the Eastern Connecticut Conference, raised their record to 7-3 overall, 3-0 in the league. Montville is bidding for its first state tournament berth since 2015, having gone 2-18, 5-15 and 6-14 the last three regular seasons.

"It is huge," Alfonso, in her second season as head coach, said of the positive energy the Indians have built with the scheduling relief they were afforded when the ECC added a fourth division. "The kids I have that are seniors, we've not had a winning season. We played in a tough division last year."

On Thursday, the Indians overcame what Alfonso — a former three-sport athlete at Stonington High School and a member of the school's Athletic Hall of Fame — deemed a strange day, for their victory.

The game was played as a doubleheader at Montville with the boys' team meeting Wheeler first, followed by the girls. The Indians were also missing a starter, who had scheduled a college visit.

"I like routine," Alfonso said. "I was very nervous today."

That was compounded in the first quarter by Wheeler sophomore Molly Butremovic, No. 20 in maroon, who had eight of her team-high 10 points in the first quarter as the Lions grabbed a 12-9 lead. It was Butremovic, during a six-point personal run, who drew both fouls on Hillman in a span of 1:05.

Wheeler (4-6, 1-3) led by eight on two different occasions.

Montville, however, scored the final nine points of the second quarter, including a three-point play by Hillman, to lead 18-17.

The Indians took the lead for good about a minute and a half into the third quarter on a 3-pointer by Velazquez and they clamped down on defense, allowing just six points in the second half, two in the fourth quarter.

Hillman joins her sister Emma, a junior, on the Montville roster. There is no basketball team at Tyl Middle School, but Hillman played for a town travel team last year, as well as competing in AAU in the past. Hillman played volleyball and plans to join the track team this spring.

"I was excited to play with a new group of girls. I was excited to play with my sister," Hillman said.

Alfonso calls Hillman "a very unselfish player."

"She's smart. She's only 14 years old. But she has a lot of seniors with her," Alfonso said. "At first people were double-teaming her and she was like, 'Ohhh.' I told her, 'You got this.' ... She had a triple-double tonight. She has no idea, literally no idea.

"I looked at Maya on the bench and said, 'If I put you in, you cannot pick up your third foul.' I had all the faith in the world in her."

v.fulkerson@theday.com

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