NEWINGTON - Scoring has never been a problem for the Newington girls basketball team this year.
Anchored with experienced players that all know how to score, the team scored 50 points or more in nine of its 13 games this season and is two games away from completing an undefeated run to a CCC Tournament championship after Monday’s 55-35 win over Bristol Eastern.
Newington’s scoring, however, was not its key to success this week or in many of its important wins this season. The other side of the ball is what makes this team so difficult to beat because it focuses on defense first and recognizes stopping its opponents lightens how much scoring is needed to win.
“It’s always defending,” Newington head coach Marc Tancredi said. “If we’re not scoring the ball and the other team is not scoring the ball, we’re probably in a pretty good position because we know our offense will come around. Rebounding, making those winning basketball plays that are going to help us stay in the game and I thought we executed our game plan really well [Monday].”
Newington’s hustle play on both ends of the floor pushed them ahead of Eastern early in their game and made it difficult for the Lancers to find any cohesion within their offense. Newington grabbed 35 rebounds, including 14 offensive rebounds, and overwhelmed Eastern everywhere.
Senior Madison Romanello finished with nine rebounds and junior Lilly Ferguson added seven to control the boards and keep the pace of the game where they wanted it. Newington had four players with at least five rebounds and six players with at least one offensive rebound and continuously created additional scoring opportunities while locking down Eastern on the other side.
“We were able to get up and down the court,” senior Karissa Zocco said. “If we got a defensive rebound, we were able to execute on offense. If we got an offensive rebound, we were able to finish right back up. We just wanted to be first to every 50-50 ball and [we] just played really well [Monday].”
Newington made it a goal to slow down guard Ciara Collins, Eastern’s leading scorer, and did so, holding her to just 15 points, 12 of which came in the first half. But Newington’s defense was all encompassing with its dominance, finishing the game with 15 steals and 11 blocks. Newington was consistently in Eastern’s passing lanes and forcing its opponent to make poor decisions with the ball, while also converging on the middle of the court when a player made a move towards the rim. Ferguson, a defensive force all season, snagged six steals and five of her teammates each made two blocks in the contest.
“We just wanted to make sure [Collins], when she had the ball, we wanted to make sure we locked her down,” Zocco said. “We always practice defense a lot at practice, probably the majority of the time and we just always want to make sure if there’s an open man, no matter if it’s your man or not, run to them, make sure they’re covered. Box out, rebound, run up the court.”
Up next for Newington is its CCC semifinal matchup with fourth-seeded Southington, a strong offensive team that likes to shoot from the outside. Newington should be pushed to keep its unbeaten streak alive, but could also pull away early the same way it did against Eastern if it can similarly surprise and overwhelm Southington. The Blue Knights advanced to this game by fighting through a 30-28 win over East Hartford, so they are prepared to take on Newington’s tough defense.
“We have the message that we’re now in the top-eight tournament and every team deserves to be here,” Tancredi said. “We take every game one step at a time and we know if we do come out flat, that there could be a possibility we’re not in a good position to win the game. We just stay level-headed and our goal is to ultimately win the CCC. That’s where our focus is.”
With the CCC championship this program has been chasing over the past few years just two games away, Newington remains set on accomplishing its goals in this abridged season. Getting the chance to compete against more of the conference was a surprise these players are not likely to squander.
“A lot of us didn’t expect to play this year,” Zocco said. “When the seniors found out we were playing, we were all just really excited, pumped up for it. We have been in the CCC Tournament the past several years, getting ready for a championship and we fell short. So to win this year would be really great.”
Matt Hornick can be reached at (860) 973-1811 or firstname.lastname@example.org