Newington's Marlie Zocco guards Windsor's #24 Janet Woodard as #14 Amaiya Stevens looks on during Newington's season-opening home victory.
Newington girls’ basketball won all 15 games a season ago, capped by a win over Windsor to capture the conference crown.
The Nor’easters tipped-off the 2021-2022 with another victory over Windsor, defeating the Warriors 55-34 at NHS last Tuesday, Dec. 15.
Freshman Bela Cucuta shined in her high school debut, scoring a game-high 20 points, all coming after the first quarter. Cucuta knocked down a half dozen three pointers, showing a comfort on the court that is beyond her years.
“That is why she is starting,” Newington head coach Marc Tancredi said of his mature freshman, “She’s got a scorer’s mentality and she’s not going to back down. We’re expecting her to be a big part of the team this year and for seasons to come.”
The 21-point triumph was not indicative to what the first three quarters looked like. Heading into the final quarter, the game was tied at 29 before Newington began to exploit Windsor’s zone defense and dominate the offensive glass.
The Nor’easters scored the first 11 points of the final frame, including a pair or triples from Cucuta and another from senior captain Lilly Ferguson.
Ferguson, who made All-State as a junior, finished with 17 points and a team-high four assists. Her ability to dictate pace allowed the home team to control the tempo during the last eight minutes, in which the road Warriors scored only five points.
“We had to be aggressive if we wanted to win and we had to defend. Defending is always a key to the game, defense wins championships,” stated Ferguson.
Tancredi said Ferguson has become both a better player on the court and a leader off of it, “She is in the second year in our program and was named captain by our players, and that’s really high praise for her. She has done a good job at crashing the boards, handling the ball, and doing all the little things.”
Ferguson is one of five seniors, four of which are starting. Twins Karissa Zocco and Marlie Zocco were primarily known as outside shooters over the last couple of years, but are now doing all the little things as well. The pair combined for nine points, a dozen rebounds, six assists, and three steals. Adriana Romano is back after averaging the second most points per game a year ago and Arianna Barnes is a key role player off the bench.
The season-opening win wasn’t without some adversity.
Following a 13-2 Newington run to start the second quarter, Windsor closed the half on a 10-0 and then held the Nor’easters to only three points during a sluggish third quarter.
“We did make a little bit of an adjustment with where we placed players, but it was really about us making shots,” Tancredi said of the team’s adjustments, “We placed our players in the bottom of the zone which made Windsor have to make a decision with who they were going to guard, but it was a matter of our players knocking down those shots.”
Windsor standout Ayanna Franks scored a team-high 18, but only two came in the final quarter.
Cucuta and Ferguson combined to score 16 over the final eight minutes. The senior-freshman tandem already has chemistry on the court.
“I knew who she was but honestly I didn’t expect her to be as good as she is. She is really going to be important for us this year, especially with some of the girls we lost last year,” Ferguson said of Cucuta, “We are looking to be the same caliber team that we were last year and we have a lot of good freshmen coming in.”
Freshman Kendall Miller was also solid in her debut, scoring six points and grabbing nine rebounds.
Ferguson, who had committed to play college basketball at the University of Massachusetts, is now the undisputed leader on the court.
“I’m just focused on leading my team and making us better,” said Ferguson. “Even at halftime I gave them a talk and said we just have to want it, and that’s what we did. We came back in the fourth quarter and we proved that we were the better team tonight.”
The team followed up the opener with a 54-41 victory over E.O. Smith. Cucuta hit seven of nine shots and again led the team with 23 points. Ferguson chipped in 20 points and nine rebounds.
On Monday, Newington moved to 3-0, winning a defensive struggle (35-24) at Wethersfield behind 19 points from Ferguson.
The victory over Wethersfield was the 20th straight win for the Nor’easters, who haven’t suffered a loss since the 2019-2020 conference tournament.
Following the undefeated season last winter, expectations for Tancredi and his team are sky-high.
“It’s just about playing Newington basketball. Playing tough, playing the right way, being disciplined,” said Tancredi. “We are going to be everybody's biggest game. We have to have the mentality that teams are going to come at us and we can’t back down.”
Newington's Lilly Ferguson defends Windsor's Ayanna Franks during the Nor'easters 55-34 win
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin