New London girls lose to No. 3 Notre Dame in tourney final
Fairfield — The five New London players were huddled together out on the court prior to the championship game of the Notre Dame Appalachian Classic, with the fifth-ranked Whalers getting ready to face No. 3 Notre Dame in what was their toughest matchup of the season so far.
And it was Joniyah Bland-Fitzpatrick, the sophomore, who was addressing her teammates.
"I was just saying we need to be aggressive in speed, keep our hands up," Bland-Fitzpatrick said. "I play with a lot of these girls (for the Bria Holmes Elite AAU team); I know every position. We just needed to keep up, keep aggressive."
Notre Dame, coached by former UConn point guard Maria Conlon, won the back-and-forth game 63-56 and the tournament, a title which New London claimed for the last four seasons.
Nique Mayo finished with 17 points and earned Most Valuable Player honors for Notre Dame (4-0), which got off to an 8-0 lead before New London (4-1) came back to score 11 straight points, leading 15-14 after one quarter.
The Whalers added another 9-0 run in the second quarter to lead 26-16 on a bank shot by Bland-Fitzpatrick with 4 minutes, 24 seconds remaining in the half.
But Notre Dame closed to within 31-29 at halftime and scored the first basket of the third quarter on a 3-pointer by Mayo to take back the lead. New London got a layup from Jayden Burns and a 3-pointer by Olivia Yard to go back up 36-32, but Notre Dame dampened the Whalers' offense with a zone defense and opened up a lead with a 10-0 run.
The Whalers, down 49-40 after three quarters, then fell short in their comeback attempt.
Bland-Fitzpatrick finished with 21 points, 15 in the first half, and 17 rebounds for New London, earning all-tournament honors. Yard, who led New London with 14 points in a 57-34 semifinal win Friday night over Thomaston, was also named to the all-tournament team.
Bland-Fitzpatrick switched positions for the Whalers this year, going from starting at guard to playing a post position out of necessity after New London graduated its entire frontcourt.
It's taken some getting used to for Bland-Fitzpatrick, who is only 5-foot-9. But the sophomore can still certainly handle the ball and score in the open court as well as any guard.
"Every single game, she's been our top or one of our top two contributors," first-year New London coach David Kohn said of Bland-Fitzpatrick. "She's had a great first four games, off the charts. When you add up all the contributions, she leads the team. When you add up all the pluses and take away the minuses for turnovers, she leads the team, even in this new role."
"It was just nerve-wracking (to start the season)," Bland-Fitzpatrick said. "It was a big change for me."
Burns added 18 points and Yard had 13 for New London, which now gets back to Eastern Connecticut Conference play with a game at Fitch on Thursday and a matchup against ECC Division I rival Norwich Free Academy on Saturday in the Whalers' home opener.
Despite the loss Saturday, the tight matchup with Notre Dame served as a good early-season test for the Whalers, who will attempt to win their seventh straight ECC divisional title.
"It gave me confidence," Bland-Fitzpatrick said. "My team, they did their hardest. They didn't give up, not one possession."
"That was amazing," Kohn said. "I'm thrilled with how they played. They worked like tigers to get the ball and get rebounds. They played them more than even. They fought their hearts out. They never gave up. They got down 8-0 and there was no give-up."
Taylor Gibbs added 14 points and Yamani McCollough 13 for Notre Dame, which hit six 3-pointers.
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