Newington's Lilly Ferguson is defended by East Hartford's Shailyn Pinkney during the CCC championship game at Enfield High School on Feb. 24.
Winning and losing can come down to a single moment. Basketball games, tournaments, and championships are sometimes decided by a miraculous shot.
That was the case last Thursday when Newington High School girls’ basketball fell to East Hartford, 31-30, in the Central Connecticut Conference (CCC) championship game played at Enfield High School on Feb. 24.
Leading 30-28 with 3.7 seconds remaining in regulation, East Hartford had to go the length of the floor and hope for a miracle. Senior Kayla Henry delivered by draining a deep three-pointer from the left baseline as the buzzer sounded, giving the Hornets a dramatic victory and crowning them as the CCC champs.
“Kid hit a big shot. That’s how it goes sometimes,” said Newington head coach Marc Tancredi.
The last minute of regulation was a microcosm of the game, which was a nail-biter from start to finish and where points were at a premium.
With the game tied at 28, Henry missed a pair of free throws and Newington freshman Selah Prignano gobbled up the rebound.
Tancredi wanted to make sure his team got the final shot so he strategically used three timeouts to drain the clock, setting up what looked to be the game-defining play.
In the closing seconds, senior Lilly Ferguson drove to the hoop and got fouled as she began to attempt a shot and made the basket. However, the official ruled that the foul occurred before Ferguson started her shooting motion, sending Ferguson to the line for a one-and-one (a penalty situation where a player shooting the free throw only gets a second foul shot if they make the first one).
Ferguson, who finished with a team-high 14 points, made two clutch free throws.
After a pair of timeouts, East Hartford set up a perfect play as Nia Edens inbounded to Shailyn Pinkney who dribbled towards midcourt and fired a pass to Henry on the left baseline. Henry quickly gathered and heaved a contested, high-arching shot that dropped in as the horn sounded, causing a huge celebration in front of East Hartford’s bench.
Ferguson’s late-game continuation-that-wasn’t was just one of a handful of controversial officiating decisions during the intense championship bout.
“I thought a couple of calls could have gone a different way, but they didn’t and the game goes on. You just have to continue to play,” said Tancredi. “It’s unfortunate, but at the end of the day you have to give credit to East Hartford and their execution.”
The back-and-forth game featured seven ties and 11 lead changes.
Pinkney provided a bulk of the offense for the Hornets, scoring a game-high 15, including 11 over the final nine minutes of the first half.
However, the senior point guard was held in check in the second half thanks to Prignano, who defended her for a majority of the second half.
Overall, it was a tremendous defensive effort from the Nor’easters. Prior to Henry’s shot, Newington allowed only eight points total in the second half, including three in a physical third quarter.
Tancredi said the team didn’t change much strategically and was “just locked in” defensively coming out of the halftime locker room.
Prignano, a freshman, also canned a three-pointer in the closing second of the first half and another early in the fourth, giving the Nor’easters a 26-23. She then made two free throws to regain the lead at 28-26 with 2:48 to play in regulation.
Tancredi called Prignano’s performance “unbelievable”, adding, “She wasn’t getting a lot of time early in the season and we told her to stick with the process and continue to work. We knew she’d have a big impact on our program and playing in a conference championship game against one of the best players in the state she played phenomenal defense.”
The fourth-year head coach did a masterful job in the final minute as Newington held the ball for nearly an entire minute before taking the lead late on Ferguson’s free throws.
“We wanted it to go down to the end. We wanted to go with three or four seconds left and we executed it perfectly. [East Hartford] just made a great play,” added Tancredi.
Henry’s shot prevented consecutive CCC titles for Newington, who defeated Windsor to win the conference championship a year ago. It also dealt the Nor’easters only their second defeat this season—the other a 52-37 loss to the same East Hartford team on Jan. 28.
Outside of the two stinging losses to the Hornets, the Nor’easters have downed the other 22 opponents this season, earning them the #1 seed in the Class L tourney, which started his week.
Because of their 19-1 regular season record, Newington earned a bye in the first round of the state tourney and will host a second round game this Friday at NHS, tipping at 6:30 p.m.
Newington’s coaches, players, and fans in attendance were dejected following the heartbreaking conference loss, but the even-keeled Tancredi had a simple message for his players following the defeat.
“I’m going to tell them I’m proud of them. I’ve been proud of them all season and I love them. We’re going to take a break over the next couple of days and re-energize for the state tournament because we have championship aspirations,” said Tancredi. “This isn’t the end of the road for us and we’ll continue to lock in like we’ve done all season. One or two losses will not define us. I give a lot of credit to East Hartford, both teams deserved to win.”
Interestingly, East Hartford is the #2 seed in the Class LL tourney. So it is possible that both teams could end up as state champions as the run to the Mohegan Sun begins.
Newington #30 Marlie Zocco and #21 Selah Prignano box out East Hartford's Kayla Henry during a 31-30 loss to the Hornets in the CCC championship game.
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin