Ashanti Frazier fell in love with the game of basketball while watching Kobe Bryant.
Last Tuesday night she had a Mamba-like moment.
The junior point guard converted a three-point play late in regulation and then came up with the game-clinching steal in overtime as #7 Newington held off #26 Shelton, 54-50, in the opening round of the Class LL tournament.
“Big time players make big time plays and she made a big time play for us,” said Newington head coach Marc Tancredi.
Shelton trailed for most of the game before catching fire from the field in the fourth quarter, taking their first lead at 41-40 on Maggie Howard’s fourth three-pointer. Howard finished with a team-high 18 points, 16 coming in the second half.
The visiting Gaels increased the advantage to 46-43 with under a minute to play in regulation before Frazier channeled her inner-Kobe.
“I knew we had enough time going down, so I was calm,” recalled Frazier, who is also a big fan of Duke basketball, “I knew what I needed to do, get to the basket as quick as I could and finish.”
Frazier dribbled to the left wing and spun back towards the middle of the key where she collided with two defenders as she flipped up a shot that rattled around the rim and dropped. Her ensuing free-throw knotted the score at 46.
“We drew it up to get her the ball and for her to get to the hoop, and good things happen when that happens,” stated Tancredi.
Shelton scored the first three points of overtime, but freshman Marlie Zocco tied things up with a clutch three-pointer as the Indians closed the tourney game on an 8-1 run.
It marked the program’s first tournament victory since 2010.
“In pregame we said that anything can happen in a state tournament game and we knew they were going to play us tough. We came out a little bit slower tonight, but good teams find a way to win and we found a way to win.” said Tancredi, who is in his first year leading the Indians, “They made a little bit of a run, but we were resilient. We persevered and we made plays at the end.”
“Shelton has a terrific offense, they run you around the whole time and they set phenomenal picks. I give respect where it should be given,” added Frazier, who helped close out the game on the defensive end.
Up 53-50 with nine second remaining in the extra session, Frazier stole a pass and was fouled. She split the pair of free throws, putting the finishing touches on a 20-point, 7-rebound, 5-assist, 3-steal performance.
Before things got wild late, Newington had controlled the game’s tempo with their defense which surrendered only 14 points over the first two quarters.
Tancredi was shorthanded coming into the opening round game, down two starters in Karissa Zocco and Alexie Armour.
The early offense came from seniors Maya Gajowiak and Olivia St Remy, who combined to score 13 points in the first half.
Gajowiak continued to fill it up in the second half, finishing with a season-high 16 points.
“She’s just gotten better as the games have gone on. She really stepped up in her role tonight,” Tancredi said of Gajowiak, who added eight rebounds, “She’s been big for us and it only helps us and makes us stronger when we have everyone back and healthy.”
St Remy did her usual damage down low, racking up 20 rebounds for the third time this season. It was the 14th time that she’s reached double-figures in rebounds.
Tuesday night could have been the final game for Gajowiak, St Remy, and the team’s two other seniors, Aby Flores and Erika Cuevas.
“Before we got on the court we said that this could have been our last game. We try and stay upbeat on the court because we never know. We always want to know that we fought hard,” said Gajowiak.
Frazier spoke with the seniors spoke prior to Tuesday’s tip and they all agreed that this group had some unfinished business.
Over the past three years Frazier has created a strong bond with the seniors, especially Gajowiak.
“We’re like best friends, we sit in classes together and eat lunch together. We can joke on and off the court and the whole time we’re laughing. I’m truly grateful for her and I cherish every moment that I have with her on the court,” said Frazier, who is following in the footsteps of her mentors at NHS, which include recent graduates Abrial Murray, Ariel Keen, and Ali Houldcroft.
“Abrial taught me how to pass and Ariel taught me how to have fun on and off the court. Ali as well, she helped me learn how to laugh. I was always so serious and I would always get down on myself. They taught me how to get over things,” said Frazier, who was born in Missouri and moved to Newington when she was seven years old, “They ‘re like family to me. Literally they all just text me today.”
Their tutelage and friendships have provided Frazier the confidence, and now the dynamo guard is making the most of her time on the court with a variety of celebrations and comic relief with her current teammates.
At one point in the third quarter Frazier chased a loose ball out of bounds and her momentum carried her through an open doorway. She reappeared through a connecting doorway a few moments later, drawing laughter from the entire crowd.
“The whole team feeds into the celebrations,” a smiling Frazier said, “It’s not just in games, I’ll do it in practices and then the next girl will do it and the next girl will do it too. Or they’ll make a shot on me and they’ll do their own celebration. I think everyone gets into it.”
Like Kobe, it’s basketball 24/7 for Frazier.
She recently joined the Mass Elite, which is one of the most successful club basketball programs in New England.
“It’s high school, AAU, fall league, high school. And there are no complaints,” Frazier said of her yearlong basketball regimen.
But before she can join her Mass Elite family, she’s got more work to do with her high school family.
Last Friday was a second-round triumph over #10 Glastonbury, 55-44, at NHS.
[Karissa] Zocco and Armour returned to the lineup, combining for 24 points. Zocco finished with a game-high 18 points on six three-pointers.
Frazier was her usual well-rounded self, finishing with 13 points, 10 rebounds, seven steals, and six assists.
Next up are the Class LL quarterfinals. The Indians enters with a record of 22-4, including the postseason, and will look for win #23 against the #2-seed New London Whalers.
Not bad for a team that went through a coaching change in the offseason when Tancredi replaced the departing Rick Bangs.
“A lot of the coaching styles were the same and the ones that changed, changed positively,” said Gajowiak, “In practice we do a lot more drills that are game-like. A lot of it is 5v5, 4v4, 5-4. A lot of game-like situations.”
Win or lose, the current group at Newington has set a new standard for success on the scoreboard and as teammates.
“Whenever someone is down, we’re always there for each other,” said Frazier, “It’s we over me.”
The quarterfinals bout is Thursday, March 7 at New London. Tip is 6 p.m.
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Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin