Defense, as usual, leads Whalers into LL semifinals

New London — The chaos perpetuated by the New London defense — senior Tai Pagan emphatically blocked five shots Thursday night, for instance — is also generally what brings the Whalers the most calm.

The defense, all tipped passes and headlong dives for loose balls, has not allowed 50 points or more since a Dec. 29 win over Notre Dame of Fairfield. That part is a given, especially in the world of New London coach and defensive mastermind Holly Misto.

"They can't beat us if they can't score," New London senior Spencer Roman said. "If we came out at halftime and we didn't score, we still win (if they don't score)."

And so it was that the New London High School girls' basketball team found its calm in a frenzied sea of green and gold-clad fans, playing in its final home game of the season at Conway Gymnasium, which also happened to result in a trip to the Class LL state tournament semifinals.

Second-ranked New London trailed by a point in the third quarter before unleashing an 11-point run to take over the Class LL quarterfinal game against No. 7 Newington, winning 48-35 with the Whalers playing the staunch defense you can set your alarm by.

New London (24-2) will play No. 11 Wilbur Cross in a semifinal game Monday at a neutral site to be announced. Wilbur Cross defeated No. 19 Stamford 45-37 Thursday.

"You have to take into consideration the time on the clock and how much we're up by," Misto said of the fine line between slowing the ball down and running an Olympic-level 55-meter dash down the floor. "If it's a fast break, we're always going to run the floor. ... We changed up the defense a little bit with our half-court trap and created a few more turnovers. That put some pep in our step."

"It's crazy how much all these girls love the game," said Pagan, New London's senior center. "There's no slowing us. We don't need to score (sometimes), but that's always our mentality. It's fun out there."

Newington (22-4) held New London scoreless for the last 4 minutes, 4 seconds of the second quarter to pull within 22-17 at halftime, then put together another 8-2 run to start the third, taking a 25-24 lead on a putback by Alexie Armour.

Xaryia Melendez scored off a high-low feed from Pagan to tip it back in New London's favor at 26-25 and the Whalers called a timeout.

"I said 'Guys, we scored two points this quarter,'" Roman said. "I think that really hit them because I don't think they noticed because we were 'up.' But (Newington) got up; we just needed to change the momentum. We got the momentum back when we needed to get it back on our side."

In the midst of what would go down as an 11-point run, Pagan scored on an offensive rebound, appearing as if she was on automatic, and Roman got out ahead on a frantic fast break that started with a steal by Melendez to make it 30-25 at the end of three quarters.

Pagan started the fourth quarter scoring on an inbounds play from Roman and Roman followed with a three-point play to make it a 10-point cushion, drawing the biggest reaction of the night from the Whaler faithful.

With the crowd chanting "de-fense, de-fense" — as if the Whalers needed any more encouragement on that front — freshman Joniyah Bland-Fitzpatrick scored two late baskets, Roman had another three-point play and Melendez scored on a pass from Roman with six seconds remaining for the final margin.

Roman had 13 points, seven assists and five steals, while Pagan had 10 points and 12 rebounds to go with the five blocks. Jayden Burns had nine points and four steals.

New London won the 2017 Class LL championship before falling in last year's quarterfinals to Enfield, despite being unbeaten at the time.

Said Pagan: "Our drive on this whole journey ... we weren't going to let it happen again. It wasn't going to happen again."

v.fulkerson@theday.com

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