New London girls beat Mercy and capture Class MM state title
Mohegan — Two things happened in rapid succession early in the third quarter late Sunday night that could have been the turning point for the New London High School girls’ basketball team.
First, star player Nalyce Dudley picked up her third foul, making every whistle for the remainder of the game a nervewracking event. Second, Mercy’s Sophie Hedge drilled the Tigers’ first 3-point field goal of the game to give them a one-point lead.
New London’s turning point: Give up. Or stay for the fight.
The sixth-ranked Whalers answered with a 10-0 run, a little of this, a lot of sophomore Serenity Lancaster, holding on for a 57-47 victory over No. 4 Mercy in the Class MM state championship game at Mohegan Sun Arena.
“I think it was more just we had to believe in ourselves,” Lancaster said of grinding out the win. “It doesn’t matter how many 3s they hit. We’ve been through this a lot in practice. We know who the shooters are on the court, we know how to defend them, we know how to do everything they did.
“I just think it was the part we had to believe in ourselves and we had to be confident in what we were doing.”
Lancaster, who had 32 points in the semifinals, finished with 24 points, 12 rebounds, six blocked shots and four assists as New London (21-6) won the third championship in program history, playing in its fifth title game since 2014.
Nyarah Dudley, the freshman, had 14 points, including three 3-pointers, and Nalyce Dudley had 13 points. Italia Salls added six assists.
The Whalers used five players until there were 17.7 seconds remaining, teetering on the brink with both Dudleys and Ky-Ani Allgood deep in foul trouble, with four, for most of the fourth quarter.
It brought Nalyce Dudley’s prediction from earlier in the week to fruition, that the Whalers would be leaving the Sun with a state championship, but even Dudley, the Division I prospect who will attend Sacred Heart University next season, couldn’t have predicted how.
A season with just seven players. A game in which she tiptoed with four fouls, her little sister rising to the occasion.
It was Nyarah Dudley who stood at the foul line with 23.3 seconds remaining when the New London band broke into a noisy, electric-guitar version of “Hey, hey, hey, goodbye” and the fans rose to their feet.
“I’m extremely happy. I mean, I have tears, of course,” Nalyce Dudley said. “I’m just happy. We worked so hard and it all paid off. Now, going out my senior year with a ring, it feels great. ... There are so many different emotions running through my head right now.”
“I told my assistants on the bench,” New London coach Tammy Millsaps said. “I never felt like we were going to lose the game. I never felt like that. We jumped out on them early and did some good things.”
The first half was streaky, with New London holding a 20-16 lead at the break.
Down 2-0, the Whalers scored 12 straight to lead 12-2, getting back-to-back baskets by Nyarah Dudley on an inbounds play and a 3-pointer to vault New London into the lead.
Nalyce Dudley hit a pair of foul shots and Lancaster did the rest with an offensive rebound and a three-point play with 1:48 to play in the first quarter. Mercy scored eight straight, however, to make it 12-10.
Mercy pulled within two three times but Nalyce Dudley closed the half with two free throws for the four-point margin.
Lancaster had seven points, seven rebounds and three blocked shots in the first half, in which New London used only five players, despite four of the five starters picking up two fouls. Mercy, which rotated in eight players, had three players with four points each.
When the third quarter began, Hedge gave Mercy the lead briefly at 21-20 before Lancaster tied things with one of two free throws and then scored on an assist from Allgood to put the Whalers back on top.
The 10-0 run featured a 3 by Nyarah Dudley and five points from Lancaster, putting New London up 30-21. Shortly thereafter, however, Mercy started raining in 3-pointers, getting three, one each by Madison Benigni, Hedge and Ava Giansiracusa that pulled Mercy within 36-33.
Nyarah Dudley banked in a shot with 5.1 seconds remaining in the third to push the lead back to five at 38-33 and Nalyce Dudley started the fourth quarter with a steal and a layup, now playing with ferocity, not timidity due to her foul situation.
The Whalers pushed the lead to 51-41 when Nalyce Dudley missed a pair of free throws, yet Nyarah Dudley tipped the rebound, headed out of bounds, to Lancaster for a layup. A basket by New London’s Allgood made it 53-43.
Millsaps, constantly answering questions about her team’s seven-player roster, without a junior varsity for reinforcement, addressed it Sunday.
“It can work. It can work,” Millsaps said. “All year people come and ask me when we walk in the gym, the other head coaches talking about how many kids we have. Quit asking me about that.
“Ask me now after we won the championship. If you ask me, ‘Can you win with seven kids?’ The answer is yes, but you have to make sure you do it right ... getting the kids to believe that it doesn’t matter how many numbers you have.”
New London previously won the Class M title in 2014 and the Class LL crown in 2017, finishing the 2017 season as the No. 1 team in the GameTimeCT Top 10 poll.
Giansiracusa finished with 17 points for Mercy (20-7) and Hedge had 16.