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No. 9 NFA gets back at No. 3 New London with 52-38 win

Norwich — Back when Courtney Gomez was the point guard at Norwich Free Academy, she recalls the gym being like this. Packed. Noisy.

"That legacy I talked about," said Gomez, now the head coach at NFA, after her team knocked off its second member of the GameTimeCT Top 10 in the last two weeks on Tuesday night. "You guys are starting to create that."

No. 9 NFA, playing on its home court, topped No. 3 New London 52-38, avenging a six-point loss at New London on Jan. 4 and creating a first-place tie atop the Eastern Connecticut Conference Division I standings.

NFA (8-2, 3-1) defeated previously 10th-ranked Glastonbury 58-52 on Jan. 14 and racked up its fifth straight victory with the win over New London (9-3, 3-1).

Makayla Poirier-Vaughters had 13 points and Jenissa Varela added 13 for the Wildcats, with Varela going 5-for-6 from the free throw line in the final 1 minute, 41 seconds to finish the fourth quarter with a clutch eight points.

Gomez, a 2004 NFA graduate, spent the final few moments on the sideline as animated as when she played for legendary coach Bill Scarlata — "It's hard not to get fired up for them," she said — and she had to hold back a few members of her team who began wandering onto the court to celebrate a few seconds early.

New London swept NFA last season to win its sixth straight ECC divisional title and the Wildcats had not won a game in the series since Feb. 14, 2017, when they topped the Whalers 59-51 to force a tie for the ECC Division I title.

"They work really hard in practice. We try not to look at the Top 10," said Gomez, whose team will now take on RHAM on Wednesday, unbeaten Bacon Academy on Friday and No. 2 Newtown next Monday. "It doesn't get any easier.

"(Last time against New London), their defensive pressure got to us. The game got too big for us. (Today), we had to focus on wanting to attack and not be tentative."

New London led the game 11-10 after the first quarter, getting a drive by Jayden Burns with 7.2 seconds remaining in a quarter which featured three lead changes.

The game was tied at 17 on a 3-pointer by New London's Olivia Yard with 3:42 remaining in the second quarter, but NFA responded by scoring the final seven points of the half to lead 24-17, taking the lead for good. Varela hit two free throws, Sarah Ericson drilled a 3-point field goal and Caitlin Dooley scored inside for the seven-point lead.

New London pulled within three late in the third quarter on a 3-pointer by Joniyah Bland-Fitzpatrick, but NFA again countered, getting back-to-back three-point plays from Ericson and Dooley for a 35-26 advantage as the fourth quarter commenced. Vaughters then gave the Wildcats their biggest lead of the game, 11, scoring to start the fourth.

Trailing by nine, New London got to within six when freshman Nalyce Dudley hit a 3-pointer to make it 43-37 with 4:20 still to play. But NFA freshman Jada Mills, who finished with eight points, came back with a 3 of her own and the Wildcats were able to finish things out from the free throw line.

"I think we finally found our momentum we've been looking for," said Poirier-Vaughters, NFA's senior center, who took last season off. "We weren't going to let them beat us on our home court. The pieces started falling together. I think we're starting to work together better. ... I'm kind of getting back to my old self."

For New London, Bland-Fitzpatrick, a sophomore who made the switch to the frontcourt this year following the graduation of the Whalers' three frontcourt starters a year ago, finished with 11 points and 11 rebounds, despite being significantly outsized in her matchup with Poirier-Vaughters.

Bland-Fitzpatrick's effort not only impressed her own coach — "She's a girl that loves the game," first-year New London coach David Kohn said — but Gomez, as well.

"What a game Joniyah had," Gomez said. "I was saying to (my assistant coach), 'how the heck do we stop this kid?' She could've won the game by herself. That's how good she is."

New London, has now lost back-to-back games, however, falling to South Kingstown (R.I.) 74-45 last Wednesday.

"I think that our strength is defense," Kohn said. "We've been working all year on offense. I thought we had some good looks, but didn't connect with the pass or didn't finish the layup. Games like this happen. (NFA) is a very good team."

v.fulkerson@theday.com

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