NFA caps off unbeaten season with ECC South title
Norwich — Seniors Sarah Ericson and Jenissa Varela were happy that they and their Norwich Free Academy girls’ basketball teammates were able to get to the finish line during an abbreviated winter season of COVID-19 and cancelations.
The Wildcats were psyched and determined to go out with a bang in Thursday night’s Eastern Connecticut Conference South Division tournament final, and, man, did they ever.
Top-seeded NFA had one of its best starts to the season as they ran over third-seeded Waterford in the first quarter. Ericson had 20 points, seven rebounds and two steals as the state’s number one team won their second straight ECC tournament title, 57-33, at Alumni Gym.
“We just wanted to come out really strong,” Varela said. “The four of us seniors knew that this is our last game together. ... We knew what we could show on the court, and I think that’s what we did in the first quarter.”
NFA (13-0) has been the number one team in the GameTimeCT/New Haven Register poll. It never trailed Waterford, leading 16-2 after the first quarter and 36-13 at halftime.
“The last few days we were so excited to play,” Ericson said. “We just came out ready to play and everybody was hyped up.”
Varela, when asked if she is satisfied with an ECC tournament title since there are no state tournaments this year, said, “With what we had in this COVID (season), yeah. I didn’t think we were going to be here. I didn’t think we were going to get an ECC final at all. … I’m just really grateful to be here right now.”
Senior Anajah Ingram had 19 points and four blocks for the Wildcats and Varela had 12 points, seven assists and three steals.
Senior Cassidy White and junior Caitlin Daley rounded out NFA’s starting lineup. Junior reserve Cynthia Deneus added 10 rebounds, including seven offensive.
Junior Milly Walker did just about everything in her power for the Lancers (11-3). She had a game-high 21 points with six rebounds and two steals.
Waterford went over eight minutes without scoring in the first half and turned it over 15 times.
“We did some good things,” Lancers head coach Dan Still said about the first quarter. “We just didn’t reward ourselves by making baskets. I’m very proud of the kids. They kept their heads up and fought through the whole game.”
Ingram and Varela each made a three during a 10-0 run that gave the Wildcats a 14-2 lead with one minute, 33 seconds left in the first quarter.
“When you really want to win a championship game, it’s about the will to win, who wants it and your heart,” NFA head coach Courtney Gomez said. “I felt like (my team) came out in the first quarter and really embodied that.”
Natalie Lombardi’s three-point play and a three by Walker cut the Lancers’ deficit to 25-11 with 2:54 left in the first half.
NFA fired back with an 11-2 run. Varela scored seven straight points during that run, including a 3-pointer.
A steal by sophomore Aryaah Loftis led to an Ericson layup with 12 seconds left in the first half to push the Wildcats’ lead to 36-13.
“We got gassed at the end of the second quarter,” Still said. “(The Wildcats’) secondary break is just fantastic. They throw the little screen, they come off and hit the little 15-footer and they got themselves going and we were gassed. They make you work real hard.”
Walker started an 11-0 run late in the third quarter and extended it into the fourth quarter. She scored eight during that run, including two free throws with 7:05 left in the game to cut Waterford’s deficit to 43-27.
“When she’s settled, she’s as good as anybody in the league,” Still said about the 5-foot-11 Walker. “She’s able to hit the 15-footer, hit the three, gets to the basket. She’s tremendous.”
Ingram scored eight during a 10-2 run to push the Wildcats’ lead to 53-29 with 1:42 remaining.
“If you had told me two months ago we would have gotten 13 games in, I would’ve said, ‘no way’,” Ericson said. “I just wanted one game at the beginning of the season. Thirteen (games) and winning the ECCs to end it is a perfect ending.”