Basketball is a complex sport, yet sometimes James Naismith’s creation simply comes down to putting the ball through the old peach basket.
The Cromwell girls used precision shooting to eliminate Kolbe Cathedral, 51-47, in the semifinals at Maloney High School and then were perfect from the foul line down the stretch to hold off Sheehan, winning the Class M championship 60-51 at Mohegan Sun Arena last Sunday night.
The Panthers drained 10 of 18 three pointers and then hit clutch free throws in the closing minutes to hold off the Bridgeport-based Cougars.
Vanessa Stolstajner connected on four of five from beyond the arc, scoring a game-high 22 points, and Najla Cecunjanin hit all three of her attempts from deep, adding 17 points.
“We knew that they would overplay us up top so the corners would be open. We put our two bigs behind the block and then we’d sneak through, which is how I had open shots,” said the 5’10” Cecunjanin, who added five rebounds and a pair of blocks, “I don’t think they expected me to be able to shoot because I’m such a big player. A lot of teams don’t expect me to have a shot, so that was an advantage for us.”
The Panthers offense was able to exploit Kolbe’s zone early and then played lockdown defense over the game’s final eight minutes.
“We knew that in order to be in tonight’s game that we’d have to be able to knock down shots. We came out early and did that and then they started overplaying, so we tried to get it inside a little bit,” said head coach Kelly Maher.
Leading 42-40 after three quarters, the Panthers allowed the first two baskets of the fourth before limiting the Cougars to three points the rest of the way.
The Panthers offense wasn’t much better, but they were able to capitalize from the foul line.
After falling behind 47-46 with less than a minute to play in regulation, Stolstajner was fouled near the top of the key and the Cougars also received a technical during the sequence. The steady junior connected on three of four foul shots, providing the Panthers a two-point advantage.
Following a defensive stop, Cecunjanin calmly sank two more free throws with 16 seconds to play, cementing the win and a spot in the Class M championship game.
“I wasn’t thinking at all. I was just focused on making them because I had missed one,” said Cecunjanin, who had missed a 1&1 that would have tied the game earlier in the fourth, “I knew I couldn’t miss again because I can’t blow it for my team, we’ve worked so hard to get here. I just kept my composure, followed though and hit the shot.”
Cromwell’s killer instinct showed in the pivotal quarter, ending the game on a 9-3 run.
“We talked about playing our game and keeping our head in the game. They started stalling, so we knew they wanted to go 1v1. We talked about making sure that we stood our ground and on those last couple of possessions we were able to do so,” added Maher.
“Coach always says to keep our composure,” said junior point guard Sadie Budzik, who added seven points, “We have to keep hope and always have the heart. It doesn’t matter the scoreboard, if you put out the effort on the court the scoreboard will take care of itself.”
Budzik was tasked with limiting Kolbe guard Gracen Kerr, who is a special offensive talent and led the Cougars with 20 points.
“It was tough, she is a really good player,” Budzik said of the matchup, “We knew what they were going to do so we just had to know who was who and defend accordingly.”
At times Kolbe had Cromwell on the ropes thanks to their size and speed advantage, especially down low with senior Shaniya Stancil, who added 14 points.
“They’re very athletic and they could jump over us, so we had to get low and push them back. The key was just to outwork them,” said Cecunjanin.
Following a five-day rest, the Panthers outworked Sheehan for the first three quarters in the championship game, taking a nine-point lead into the fourth, before again polishing off the title tilt at the foul line.
Budzik scored a game-high 18 points, 13 coming in the second half.
After three quarters it seemed like Cromwell was in complete controlled, but the Titans from Wallingford stormed back and took their first lead of the game on a pair of free throws from Caitlyn Velez, which was part of a 14-3 run to start the fourth.
“They came back really quickly and we knew that would be possible because they came back against Berlin, so when they came back we knew we just had to keep our composure like we did against Kolbe,” recalled Cecunjanin, who had 15 points and eight rebounds, “We knew if we kept our composure it could work out in the end,”
Trailing 47-46, Cecunjanin converted a three-point play and then drained a three pointer from the left wing on the following possession.
Cecunjanin’s 6-point burst regained the lead for the Panthers, who scored 14 of the game’s final 18 points to close out the championship contest.
“I told them that they have to take one possession at a time. The momentum shifted towards Sheehan and I thought that we we’re trying to do too many things too quickly. Once we calmed down and took a deep breath I though we were able to get in our sets and get the options that we wanted, and we were able to get to the foul line and make them,” said Maher.
The Panthers hit their final nine shots from the line, securing their third title in seven seasons.
Teamwork Makes the Dream Work
Sunday’s championship was the end of a long journey for a Panthers team that got stronger as the season aged.
“I think we were playing our best basketball here,” said Maher, referring to the state tournament, “They were able to overcome a lot of adversity and we overcame some of our weaknesses.”
Following back-to-back losses at the end of December, the Panthers won 21 of 22 games they played in 2019, including capturing their fourth straight Shoreline championship.
“They’re the best people ever. I love them so much and they make basketball so much fun. Winning with them is the best feeling ever, I wouldn't want to win it with anyone else,” Cecunjanin said of her teammates.
Starters Gina Sousa and Jessica DellaRatta are two of the four seniors, along with Eliza Weston and Taylor Yankowski, that were able to bookend their high school careers with championships.
“It’s amazing, because after my freshman year I didn’t know if I was ever going to be back in this gym at Mohegan Sun, but this year we had goal to come back and win it,” recalled Sousa, who played in nine games for the 2015-2016 team that defeated Notre Dame in the title game to finish off an undefeated season.
On Sunday, DellaRatta put the game’s first points on the scoreboard with a strong finish inside and Sousa helped ice the game with four free throws in the fourth quarter.
“It feels so amazing because not a lot of people expected us to be here because we lost so many great players, but it’s good to show that this group of girls has what it takes,” said DellaRatta.
Following the semifinal win, Maher called DellaRatta the team’s “unsung hero.”
“She does all the little things correct and she doesn’t get enough credit. She gets the big rebounds, and she can guard on the perimeter and down low,”
All four seniors filled important roles. And all four will be missed.
“They all mean so much to the team in different ways. Without all four of them we don’t get here. They’ve all had their moments throughout the year, and they all did things tonight that made an impact. Without them we’re not in this position at all, their leadership has been fantastic.”
Next year the team will have their three leading scorers (Stolstajner, Cecunjanin, Budzik) returning as they aim for back-to-back titles, but first the current group will hang another banner at CHS, the undisputed home of basketball champions.
“We knew what we wanted to accomplish,” added Sousa, “We worked so hard, we’ve been together every day since the day after Thanksgiving. We look to each other as sisters, it’s just one big family.”
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin