Lady Panthers advance to finals

The Cronwell girls knew that if they were to get to the Class M finals they would have to do something that neither they, nor any other team, had done all season long – beat Morgan.

The Huskies had bested the Panthers twice in the regular season, both times by three points. Morgan (25-0) had also taken the Shoreline conference championship over Cromwell by a score of 53-52, but the Panthers familiarity with their nemesis may have factored into their ability to come away with the state tournament semifinal win at neutral site Sheehan (Wallingford) on March 16, by a score of 52-49.

Neither team wasted any time feeling each other out, as both squads went for deep shots and took chances in the first quarter. Cromwell’s Nicole Rojas scored the first points of the game, with a jumping three, and the lead shifted several times early on, with Morgan on top 13-11 after the first frame.

Both defenses got tight in the second, and neither team scored for 4 and a half minutes. Cromwell held Morgan to just one basket – a three-pointer – in the quarter, and took a 18-16 edge into the locker room.

Coach Kelly Maher said the only adjustments her team made at halftime was with their spacing and getting the ball into the paint.

“We were really crowded on the offense, so we looked to stretch it out,” she said. “We looked to get the ball inside, and they overplayed, so we got some transition baskets, and we’re really best in transition.”

The Panthers got out to a quick 6-2 run in the first minutes of the second half. The pace slowed, but that run turned into 10-3. Cromwell enjoyed a 13-point lead briefly, and held on with defense to stay up by 10 going into the fourth 38-28.

Morgan didn’t quit in the fourth, and seemed to save its best basketball for late in the game. Junior standout Sami Ashton wove between Cromwell players on several plays in a row, and soon the Panthers’ lead had shrunk to just 4. But Cromwell knew that keeping the ball out of the Huskies’ hands was the best way to keep them from scoring. They survived Morgan’s late fouling, with senior Nicole Rojas netting three of four from the foul line, and the time ran out on Morgan’s undefeated season.

“Morgan’s a good team,” Maher said. “It always comes down to three or four points when you’re playing them. It always comes down to the end. At some point you figure you had to break through.”

Senior Nicole Rojas said when Morgan started coming back, she and her teammates just had to keep their focus.

“We had to stay calm,” she said. “Right when they started hitting shots, we had to keep our composure, and keep our lead up.”

Rojas said her team also learned from earlier defeats.

“I think we grew a lot through the year, after each game and each loss, we grew as as team,” she said. “We grew and we learned from those mistakes, and we were able to win this game, and it feels great.”

Maher said there was a fairly simple plan and little new in their approach to facing Morgan the fourth time this year. She added that her team was confident that if they played their game, they could come away with a win.

“We had worked on our screening, and boxing out,” Maher said. “I thought we did a good job of it tonight. This time, we had the ball at the end. We kept our composure down the line.”

Maher said forward Mya Villard played better as the game went on.

“We were forcing a lot, and didn’t have good angles for passes inside [early],” she said. “Then Mya relaxed and let the game come to her, and I thought she did a great job inside tonight.”

“This feels absolutely amazing,” said junior Emma Belcourt, who was a freshman the last time Cromwell won a state title. “Usually a team’s lucky if they get there once, and we’re going there twice. It’s crazy.”

Belcourt added that her team did pump themselves up when they were getting ready to face Morgan for the fourth time, and wanted to change the outcome.

“We finally had enough,” she said. “We were sick of everyone saying, ‘You’re going to get them next time.’ This was the last time for this year, and we just just wanted to prove to everyone and to ourselves that we could do it.”

Cromwell (#4) is set to take on St. Joseph (#11) for the Class M championship this weekend at Mohegan Sun.

When asked if beating an undefeated rival would make the championship game seem easy, Maher had a simple answer.

“We’re just going to get ready for the next game,” she said.

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