East Hampton’s Jackie Russell is defended by Coginchaug’s Chloe Shafir as senior captain Jordan Murphy comes over to set a screen during the Bellringers 44-24 state semifinal victory on March 13.
East Hampton girls basketball soundly defeated Coginchaug 44-24 in the Class M semifinals at Morgan High School on Monday, earning a trip to Mohegan Sun Arena for this weekend’s state championship game.
It will be the program’s first state championship appearance since 1980.
In the semifinals triumph, the Bellringers used an efficient offense and smothering defense to overwhelm the Durham-based Blue Devils from the opening tip.
Sophomore Liana Salamone led the offense with 19 points, while junior Jackie Russell added 12 and sparked the team on the defensive end by taking a pair of charges in the first quarter.
“This time of year, you have to hang your hat on defense,” said East Hampton head coach Shaun Russell. “You play in different venues and there are different shooting backgrounds, so you’re not always going to shoot well or you may not get good shots because you are playing teams that can guard.”
Jackie Russell, who scored all of her points beyond the arc, drained a high-arching three-pointer on the team’s first trip down the court.
After Coginchaug’s Katie Farr tied the game at three, Russell canned another triple to give the Bellringers the lead for good. She also prompted a 11-0 scoring run in the second quarter by hitting back-to-back treys from the left and right wings.
The opposing teams entered the semifinal round very familiar with each other because both play in the Shoreline Conference (SLC) and had already played twice this season, once during the regular season and once in the SLC tournament semifinals.
The Bellringers had won the previous two games by an average of 20 points per game, yet East Hampton emphasized the importance of not taking a conference rival lightly.
“We couldn’t underestimate them. We knew they could play just as well,” said Jackie Russell “They had seven seniors, so we knew they would give it all they have and we just had to come prepared.”
It was also the third time this winter that the Bellringers were playing at Morgan High School, giving the team added comfortability at the neutral site.
Salamone put the game out of reach in the third, scoring seven points as East Hampton upped the lead to 24 points going into the final quarter.
Sophomore Olivia DeMartino added six points and four steals in the victory.
Shaun Russell said DeMartino’s versatility gives the team a lot of flexibility on both ends of the court, adding that DeMartino, junior Delaney Russell, and senior captain Jordan Murphy can all guard multiple positions on the defensive end.
“Defensively with that group it allows us flexibility to do some different things,” added the longtime coach. “We can guard just about anybody and make the other team do things they don’t want to do.”
The team’s defensive tenacity was on full display during the second and third quarters, holding Coginchaug to a mere eight points over the 16-minute stretch.
After East Hampton secured a spot in the state championship game, they watched two other SLC rivals battle in the second half of the semifinals back-to-back to see who their opponent would be.
Valley Regional defeated Cromwell, 56-51, to reach the title game and set up a third meeting with the Bellringers.
East Hampton defeated Valley Regional in both contests this season, winning easily at Deep River in December and then having to rally to earn a victory at EHHS in February.
Outside of the two losses to the Bellringers, the Warriors of Valley Regional won 17 of 18 games in the regular season. They have an experienced roster that features first-team all-conference seniors Abby Bradbury and Lily Grow, who have combined to average nearly 30 points per game this season.
East Hampton’s resume is even more impressive. Entering the championship game, the Bellringers have won 27 of 28 games this year, including the postseason.
Shaun Russell expressed that he wanted his team to soak up the semifinals victory before turning the page to the title tilt,
saying, ““Enjoyment and desire to play is also what fuels the energy to play and intensity.”
“We have to strike that balance of preparing for a familiar opponent and at the same time still improve and find those areas of the game that can help us,” he added.
With the semifinals triumph now in the rear view mirror, there’s just one game left for all the marbles.
Jackie Russell said the trip to Mohegan “means everything”, adding, “we just have to have a couple of really good days of practice and get ready.”
Check ciacsports.com for a complete list of dates and time for this weekend’s state basketball championship games.
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin