Newington’s Abrial Murray missed her entire junior season following a knee injury a year ago.
This now-senior is making up for the missed time, leading the Indians in scoring, including a 25-point shooting demonstration in the team’s 45-41 victory over visiting Rocky Hill last Wednesday night at NHS.
“She was great for us tonight,” Newington head coach Rick Bangs said following the team’s eighth win, “She’s battling back from the ACL tear, so she’s kind of been up and down leading up to this game. She’s had some good games and she’s had some rough games, but the last few games she’s starting to find herself. You see when she’s confident with her shooting, this is what you get.”
Murray drained a handful of three-pointers, including four in the second half during an incredible 21-point onslaught over the final 16 minutes of action.
The injury from a season ago is now in the rear view mirror, but some of her success on the court can be traced back to the long, challenging road of recovery.
“My shot improved from it, just because the chip on your shoulder,” said Murray, who also hauled down six rebounds in the victory, “Missing an entire season you want to come back and you want to work harder. It’s not like I didn’t work hard before, but getting injured and doing rehab I learned a bunch of new exercises that I would have never known that have strengthened other muscles.”
The Indians needed Murray’s offensive production, because they struggled to find the bottom of the net during a sloppy first half of basketball. The team produced only four points in the first quarter and a dozen more in the second frame.
Luckily for the home team, the Terriers also struggled against Newington’s zone defense, managing only 15 points over the same time span.
“We have to play every team with our defense a little different, because every team is different. We thought that our 2-3 [zone] would be best against this team,” said Murray, who added that the team is just as comfortable playing man-to-man defense, “We have a lot of different defenses that we can switch to during games, but today the 2-3 work so we stuck with it.”
Rocky Hill’s swarming defensive press was equally impressive in the first half and made life difficult for Newington’s backcourt.
“We talked a lot about just staying patient, and I have all the faith in the world in our guards,” Bangs recalled about the slow start offensively, “Once we got the ball in the frontcourt, we were patient with it. We took care of the ball, we didn’t turn the ball over, and we got good shots. Even in the first half the shots weren’t going down, but we were still getting good shots. We’ve had problems early in games knocking shots down, so when we missed our first few it wasn’t really surprising and we figure it out.”
Both offensives found their groove coming out of the halftime locker room, playing an entertaining and wild third quarter, which featured nine lead changes and a tie.
Rocky Hill grabbed a 24-20 lead midway through the quarter, but Murray went to work, scoring 11 of the next 15 points to close the quarter. Her 11 points came on a trio of three-pointers and a tough floater in the lane that went off glass.
Early in the fourth, Rocky Hill’s Grace Fisher made consecutive layups, regaining a 34-33 advantage for the road team. However, Murray scored the next four points on a layup of her own and a pair of foul shots.
Melanie Holmes nailed a three-pointer on the right baseline, which tied the game at 37, but again Murray countered, knocking down another trifecta on the following possession. Murray’s fifth and final three provided Newington a 40-37 edge, a lead they would not relinquish.
Murray was helped out by her freshman backcourt-mate Ashanti Frazier, who added seven points and had four steals on the defensive end of the court.
Aly Houldcroft also chipped in with seven points, and Gio Rivera added four points and five rebounds. Sophomore Olivia St. Remy led the team with 10 rebounds.
It was the Indians’ sixth victory over their last seven games, following a 2-6 start.
“I’ve really been preaching team and coming together as a team, and it was a real team effort again tonight,” added Bangs, “Defensively we are starting to get back to being the defensive team that I like. I could not be prouder of my girls, we beat a very good basketball team tonight.”
The loss snapped a three-game winning streak for head coach Allyson Toulouse and her Terriers, who fell to 11-4.
“On defense we looked tired. They have some great ball handlers, so if you’re not zoning in on certain pressures or certain strategies defensively, they will exploit it and they did a good job. Even though we lost to a very good team tonight there are so many moments to grow with this group,” said Toulouse, who does not have a senior on her roster, “Going into this year I never thought it was a rebuilding year. I was actually really excited to see some of these younger kids grow and step up. I’m upset that we lost the game, but I think there are areas that we’ve been successful all season and I think that will help us in the postseason.”
Bangs added that it’s always a tough matchup whenever they play their neighbors from Rocky Hill, who won the annual matchup 44-38 a season ago at RHHS.
“I have all the respect in the world for Allyson and the job that she does over there. They are very well coached and she does a great job with them.”
Sophomore Nikki Lukens led the Terriers with 13 points, followed by Fisher with a dozen, and Holmes with 11.
Toulouse and her Terriers rebounded with a convincing 50-17 triumph over Maloney last Friday night. Lukens again led the way with 22 points.
The Indians chalked up their ninth victory on the same night, edging Bristol Eastern 62-54, snapping a six-game winning streak for the Lancers.
There are only a few regular season games remaining and Bangs wants to see more of the steady improvement he’s witnessed all season.
“I want us to keep doing what we are doing. I think a game like this does nothing but inflate our confidence. We’ve competed in every single game we’ve played this year, outside of a couple back in December. No matter who we play, we’re going to battle. It’s just a matter of us making enough shots to get a win.”
His senior leader agrees and thinks the team is vastly improved since the beginning of the season, thanks to the familiarity and unity on the court.
“Once we kind of let go and came together, we started swinging the ball and not taking the first shot. Ball movement is definitely is the reason we’re playing better,” said Murray, who added that the backcourt must continue to develop if they want to sustained success, “We’ve have a little trouble breaking a pressure so we just have to stay focused, especially in crunch time.”
The ultimate crunch time will start in in early March, when the state tourneys begin.
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin