Cromwell Loses to St. Joseph in Class M Title Fight

MOHEGAN SUN-Despite trailing St. Joseph-Trumbull by 15 points at halftime of the Class MM Tournament championship game, Cromwell was nowhere near ready to give up. The Panthers roared back in the third quarter, and got within three points with 1:02 remaining in the fourth. Ultimately however, the deficit was too much to overcome.

Fourth-seeded Cromwell lost 50-44 to 11th-seeded St. Joseph on Saturday afternoon at Mohegan Sun. The championship is the Cadet’s first, while the Panthers were attempting to win their second title in three seasons.

“We just rushed our shots too much near the end,” Cromwell head coach Kelly Maher said.

Cromwell (23-5) and St. Joseph (18-4) both played good defense in the first quarter while their offenses struggled, with it ending 11-6 Cadets. In the second, the Panthers could not contain the St. Joseph offense.

The Cadets controlled the eight minutes, scoring 21 points. They did a strong job of pushing the tempo and moving the ball from side to side. St. Joseph made Cromwell pay for its shaky perimeter defense, hitting four three pointers. Meanwhile, the Panthers offense went cold and had trouble getting to the basket, going more than five minutes without a field goal. At halftime, they trailed 31-16.

In the third quarter, the defense clamped down and helped Cromwell get right back into the game. It held St. Joseph without a field goal for the entire quarter. The Panthers did a great job of rotating and guarding the basket, and also made sure to tightly guard the Cadets top shooters. St. Joseph missed 10 shots and committed four turnovers.

“In the third, our defense picked up its intensity and played harder, and we were able to get more rebounds,” Maher said.

Cromwell’s offense was also more effective in the third, allowing the team to get within six at 34-28. The Panthers attacked the basket with more urgency, causing the Cadets defenders to be out of position and leading to open shots. Senior point guard Nicole Rojas and junior guard Emma Belcourt made impressive baskets late in the quarter to give Cromwell momentum. With 2:02 remaining, Rojas completed an acrobatic layup despite being fouled and sank the free throw, and Belcourt drained a three from the left corner with 38 seconds remaining.

“In the third, we played our game where we spread out and move the ball around more, and got it to the open person instead of playing one-on-one ball,” Maher said.

Cromwell continued to display maximum effort in the fourth, but unfortunately could not complete the comeback. The Panthers offense was ineffective during the first five minutes of the quarter, scoring just four points.

“Their defense took us out of our game plan and we looked nervous and tentative during that stretch. That’s really all it was,” Maher said.

‘”We needed to take a better care of the ball and avoid rushing our shots,” Rojas said. “We had some good lucks near the end, we just didn’t finish them.”

At the same time, Cromwell’s tight defense was not allowing St. Joseph good looks. In response, the Cadets repeatedly went inside and forced the Panthers to foul them. St. Joseph took 10 free throws in the fourth, making 12. In comparison, Cromwell took only 12 free throws the entire game, hitting eight.

“They took an awful lot of free throws and that hurt us. When you make free throws, it keeps you in the game. We were trying to attack the basket, but they called it tight tonight,“ Maher said.

After falling behind 41-32 with 3.01 left in the game, the Panthers made one last charge. A three point play by Belcourt and free throws by senior forward Mya Villard got them to within six before sophomore guard Nikki Bitinaitis nailed a three from the top of the key at the 1:47 mark, making it 45-40. Rojas hit a jumper on the next position and then Belcourt stole the ball and made a jumper, but missed her additional foul shot to leave the score 47-44. Cromwell failed to hit any of their remaining shots, and the Cadets sealed the victory with free throws.

Belcourt led the Panthers with 16 points, and Rojas scored 13. Villard had a double-double with 10 points and 14 rebounds. Bridget Sharnick led St. Joseph with 16 points and 8 rebounds, and Jacqueline Jozefick recorded 10 and 11.

While Maher and Rojas are disappointed that the Panthers couldn’t reach their ultimate goal of winning the state championship, they are immensely proud of the team’s season.

“This group overachieved, and the growth they made from day one until now is what I’m most proud of. No one expected us to be playing tonight. They fought hard and were resilient every game,” Maher said.

“I am going to miss this group a lot,” said Rojas, who is playing at Stonehill next season. “They’re a great group of girls, and I’m happy I was able to be their captain and lead them here. I love them to death and wish them the best of luck next year.”

Senior point guard Nicole Rojas looks for an open teammate near the basket.

Senior point guard Nicole Rojas looks for an open teammate near the basket.                                            

Emma Belcourt  prepares to leave a defender in the dust.

Emma Belcourt prepares to leave a defender in the dust.

The Cromwell players line up with their runner-up medals.

The Cromwell players line up with their runner-up medals.

Nikki Bitinaitis makes things difficult for the St. Joseph offense.

Nikki Bitinaitis makes things difficult for the St. Joseph offense.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *