The girls’ basketball team from Wethersfield trailed by as many as seven points on three separate occasions, but rallied to defeat their crosstown rival Rocky Hill Terriers 61-56 last Tuesday night at RHHS.
The victory was the Eagles fifth in a row.
“The key tonight was hustle and competing for every single ball,” said Wethersfield’s first-year head coach Jeff Russell, “They run a tremendous offense and defense, and they are one of the best coached teams we’ve played. If you’re not working and not playing as five players on defense, they’ll make you pay and they went on some runs in the second and third quarters.”
The game was hectic from start to finish as both teams pressed the length of the court for a majority of the contest. The aggressive defense led to 32 entertaining and fast-paced minutes, especially during the third quarter, which featured three lead changes and ended with the score tied at 42.
Rocky Hill went on a 8-0 run midway though the quarter to take a 40-33 lead, but the Eagles got an offensive lift from a player returning from injury.
Cheyenne Mone-Smith went wild, scoring 16 of the game’s next 23 points, providing the Eagles a lead they would hold until the final buzzer.
“I just got back from a concussion, so this was my first game back and we needed this win. This is always a tough game for us,” said Mone-Smith, who added that she feels more comfortable on the court this season, “I’m looser with the ball. I know that I can trust my teammates, I can pass to them and they can finish. I think we’ve become a lot better as a team.”
The junior started the game on the bench, but finish it with a bang, scoring 17 of her 19 points in the second half.
Early in the fourth with the game knotted at 44, Russell used a timeout, which seemed to invigorate his squad.
“I needed to get our group some energy, so that was an energizing timeout,” explained Russell, “We take timeouts every now and again where we’ll just sit and breath and we won’t even go over strategy. We let the kids mentally and physically come back to ground level. Basketball is a game of runs and you try and control the runs, both for us and against us.”
The energy-boosting timeout worked as the Eagles scored the game’s next eight points, all by Mone-Smith.
The home team chipped away at the lead, but could get no closer five points.
Rocky Hill junior Melanie Holmes scored a game-high 21 points, including seven over the final eight minutes.
“We’re very similar teams. It was like staring at each other in the mirror, our strengths are the same,” Rocky Hill coach Allyson Toulouse said following the team’s fifth loss of the season, “Their defensive mindset is very similar to ours and we don’t see that type of aggressiveness that much. I felt like we didn’t capitalize on that aggressiveness by making the extra pass and stepping to the ball, the little fundamental stuff. I think they capitalized on that and there were moments when we didn’t take a breath. Not only would they turn us over in those moments, but they would get really solid possessions on the other end. I credit them 100% for their fourth quarter game management. Sometimes I’m not sure that we know how to play from behind, but that’s the first time that we’ve seen a similar type of defense. I think it was really healthy to see that.”
Nikki Lukens, Rocky Hill’s scoring leader this season, scored eight of the team’s first 14 points, but was held to seven points the rest of the way.
“They did a really good job honing in on Nikki, they really tried to limit her touches. Our mistakes on offensive end were from their defensive tenacity and we really couldn’t get those stops that we normally get,” added Toulouse, “We can’t rest on the things that make us successful and we still have to take that next step. As much as a hate to admit it, losses like this really define a young team and how we can get better. It’s a growth opportunity.”
Both teams have similar styles and also play several players who are new to the varsity level. The Terriers do not have a senior on their roster and the Eagles have a pair of freshmen in the starting lineup.
Nicole Gwynn and Alice Kelly combined for 24 points in the victory and their coach is seeing them mature with each passing game.
“They survive at the varsity level because of their desire to compete. What’s growing is their comfort level with varsity basketball,” Russell said about the young duo, “It took Alice a little bit longer, but it also changed quickly for her from being a kid that played JV and dressed varsity to being a starter and one of our major contributors.”
The freshman tandem carried the Eagles offense in the second quarter. Gwynn had six of her 13 points in the quarter and Kelly tallied eight of her 11, including Wethersfield’s final six points heading into the halftime locker room.
The development of the two has deepened the Eagles bench and allowed the first-year coach to implement an up-tempo system.
“We’re a deep group. It varies every night and we tend to play the hot hand, but we play the hot hand defensively,” stated Russell, “We’re looking for who’s giving extra effort and who’s flying around and who’s chasing down and diving after loose balls. I think that’s what really turned the page for us tonight and I think it got us in the right direction headed for the tournament.”
Russell’s team polished off the week with their sixth straight victory, defeating New Britain 48-44 in overtime on Saturday. Senior Kate McDonald canned a pair of three-pointer late in regulation and the Eagles pulled away in the overtime session.
The win improved their overall record to 12-6 entering the final week of the regular season.
The CCC and state tourneys are right around the corner and the young coach is hoping the team continues to jell together on the court.
“I want to see us make the extra pass, take a charge for your teammate, and communicate with your teammates,” added Russell, “We’re coming together as a group and I know we support each other, but now we’ve got to see it in the physical part of the game.”
The Terriers wrapped up a difficult week losing 55-47 to New Britain on Friday. In the loss, junior Lizzy Denardo had a great all-around game, registering six steals, grabbing five rebounds, and dishing out four assists.
Despite the two losses, the Terriers are still very much in contention with a record of 13-6, but Toulouse is still waiting for someone to assume the leadership role. For now it’s a committee, with players like Lukens and Denardo sharing the responsibilities.
“I think [Lizzy] has the ability because she’s really connected with the younger kids on this team and they really look up to her. In moments when we start unraveling, we’ve been teaching her to bring everyone together. She’s been playing great all year and her ability to put her own personal play aside and help others has been huge,” said Toulouse, “Nikki as a floor leader is starting to develop into that as well. She leads by doing, but also communicates very well.”
Now the fourth-year head coach is hoping the team can right the ship before the games become win-or-go-home.
“We know what we do well and now we’re starting to transition to how we prepare and take away the best player,” added Toulouse , “Night in and night out we rely on a handful of things that we do well and we know what helps us get that motor running and keep it going. Our defensive aggressiveness is there, but our understanding of adjusting in-games will be huge.”
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin