Trailing 29-21 at the half, Nikki Lukens needed to have a memorable final 16 minutes in front of her hometown family and friends.
“I knew that it was my last game on our home floor, so I wanted to close it out strong.”
And that she did.
The senior guard poured in 20 of her game-high 26 points in the second half as the Terriers rallied for a 53-46 victory over Middletown on Senior Night at RHHS, earning the team a spot in the state tournament last Monday night.
“She’s a kid that you don’t need to get going. She always has her own motivations and you don’t have to get her fired up, but I looked at her and said ‘this is your last game on this floor, what are you going to do about it?’,” asked Rocky Hill head coach Allyson Smith, “She is such a humble kid, but she has that competitive nature about her. She refuses to lose and tonight she showed how she gets that done. She put the team on her back.”
Lukens single-handedly outscored Middletown in the second half, as the Terriers quickly erased the halftime deficit and picked up their eighth win of the season.
“We talked about staying composed and about passing the ball around and sealing the inside,” Lukens said of the halftime adjustments, “It was hard in the first half, we were a little nervous and chaotic but we calmed down a lot in the second half and looked for the openings and took our time.”
Middletown jumped out to a 9-2 lead after the first few minutes and upped the advantage to as many as 11 points in the first half before the resilient Terriers clawed their way back in thanks to Lukens’ efforts and a strong defensive performance in the second half.
“Our defensive rotations were slow and it was getting us out of position for rebounding. We get overly aggressive on the ball sometimes and if they made one pass, our weak side suffered,” recalled Smith, “We just had to get in better positioning, and we made that adjustment in the second half.”
Smith’s press defensive limited the Blue Dragons to 17 second-half points and sparked transition buckets on offense.
Aleksa Peterson supplied energy on both ends of the court, stepping into passing lanes defensively and setting up Lukens with pinpoint passes.
“It’s tough this year but with Nikki it makes it easier,” said Peterson, who shares the captain’s duties with Lukens, “We knew that the pressure was going to be on us this year, but we were ready for it.”
Peterson added nine points, seven coming in the first half. Her role has changed this season, becoming more of a ball hander and taking some of the pressure off Lukens.
“I’ve worked on it. In the beginning of the season it wasn’t that great, but now I’m looking up a lot more and it’s working out,” Peterson said of her ability to drive and dish to open shooters on the perimeter.
“We have a good chemistry because we are the only two starters returning from last year. I think we’ve really come together as the leaders and done well together,” added Lukens.
The team lost five seniors and three starters from a season ago, putting added responsibilities on the duo.
“Aleksa always knows the right decision, it’s how she gets it there. She’s getting better at not forcing it and understanding when to pass and when to keep it,” stated Smith, “With her it’s just consistency. She wants to help and she’s so aggressive but it needs to be toned down. She’s becoming a smarter and more intelligent player that way.”
Corrin Stabile kept the Terriers within striking distance in the first half, canning two big three pointers. The junior has filled a much-needed outside shooting role.
“Her shooting is amazing this year, she has so much more confidence than before,” Peterson said of the Stabile.
Lukens wasted little time following the halftime break, leading the Terriers on a 12-3 run. She scored 10 during the run and gave the Terriers first their lead of the game at 33-32 when she stole the ball in the open court and took it herself for a layup.
Middletown closed the quarter scoring six of the next eight, but the Terriers again seized the momentum to start the fourth with a 12-2 run, which was started by an offensive rebound and layup from senior Annie White.
Lukens and fellow senior Julia DiBattista closed out the game with points in the paint and free throws.
DiBattista finished with eight points, all coming in the second half, and grabbed several crucial rebounds down the stretch.
“[Julia] is always in the right spots, but it’s just about toughness and trusting her instincts. In the first half she was a little tentative and in the second half she trusted her instincts,” Smith said of her center, “She’s the tallest person on the floor and she used that to her advantage tonight. The fundamentals have gotten better over the season and she always shows up in monster moments.”
The win came at the right time and just so happened to be the final game at Rocky Hill High School for Lukens, White, DiBattista, Lordina Onyina, Melissa Hiller, and Julia Rosa.
“We wanted to qualify for state, which we did tonight,” stated Lukens, who became the program’s all-time leading scorer earlier this season, “Closing the season out strong is our primary goal.”
Lukens and the Terriers had a setback last Thursday, losing 48-26 at Newington. Ashanti Frazier led the Indians with 12 points and seven steals.
Following an up and down regular season, the Class M tourney is up next for the Terriers. The team is hoping to make a run similar to the semifinal march they made a season ago.
“We’re in almost every single game and it’s just the execution of the little things. We’re getting better at time and score situations and we’ve gotten a little more poise with some of these younger kids,” Smith said of the team’s growth, “We’ve played hard all year and we’ve executed to the best of our ability but now we’re playing smarter. Our awareness and IQ has gotten better.”
Despite the loss to Rocky Hill, Middletown had already secured a spot in the Class L tournament.
Senior MacKenzie Dunn led the Blue Dragons with 18 against Rocky Hill, displaying her ability to score down low and stretch the floor with her outside shooting. Nine of her points came in the first quarter and she had 15 by halftime.
Sophomore Kya Mayo added 12 points and senior Dominque Highsmith had nine points.
The Blue Dragons responded in the next game, defeating Platt 52-40 last Thursday, led by Mayo’s 15 points and Dunn’s 11. The win improved the team to 11-8.
The Starting Five: Local Athletes of the Week
Cromwell’s 1600 Meter Relay Team (Track & Field): Andraya Yearwood, Jordan Pare, Caitlin DellaRatta, and Cara Jordan combined to win the 1600 Sprint Medley Relay at the Class S Indoor Track finals last Thursday. The foursome ran a 4:20.13, which was over three seconds faster than the second-place team from Old Saybrook. Yearwood also took home third place in the 55 Meters and teamed with Pare, Kaitlin Lewkowicz, and Melissa Woodcock for another third-place finish in the 4x200. The Panthers placed sixth overall at event, held at the Floyd Little Athletic Center.
William Curran- Xavier (Track & Track): Curran won the 1000 Meters at the Class L finals, edging teammate and runner-up Peter Schulten. Xavier took home first place overall as a team at the event thanks to a strong all-round performance by the Falcons. Curran also joined forces with Christian Schaefer, James Dickman, Pierre Sylvain for first place in the 1600 Sprint Medley, and Robbie Cozean won the 3200 Meters.
Clarissa Nock- Wethersfield (Track & Field): Nock finished second in the Shot Put at the Class L finals last Friday at the Floyd Athletic Center. The junior does a little of everything for the Eagles track & field team, also completing with teammates Giuliana Serrao, Kathleen Hattie, and Kayla Condon during the 1600 Sprint Medley at the class finals.
Justin Stergos- Cromwell/Newington (Hockey): Stergos scored a pair of goals, including the go-ahead goal in the second period, as Newington co-op defeated SNLT 3-1 last Saturday. The two goals were a season-high for the junior defenseman, who has been a valuable asset for an Indians team that is 12-4 entering the week.
Najla Cecunjanin- Cromwell (Basketball): Cecunjanin had terrific back-to-back all-around games last Monday and Thursday. The junior had 13 points, seven rebounds, five assists, and three blocks in a 62-38 victory over Valley Regional, then posted 11 points, 16 rebounds, six assists, and three blocks in a 59-27 win over Morgan.
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin