It was a roller coaster month for the Newington girls’ basketball team.
After finishing the regular season with a 19-1 record, they lost on a buzzer-beating shot in the Central Connecticut Conference (CCC) championship game on Feb. 24.
The Nor’easters quickly turned the page by winning three state tournament games, including an emotional semifinals victory to reach the state championship before falling to Notre Dame-Fairfield, 60-45, in the Class L title game at Mohegan Sun Arena on March 19.
It was the program’s first state championship appearance since 1993.
After eliminating Bristol Central and Guilford in the opening rounds of the state tourney, Newington reached the title game by defeating E.O. Smith, 35-34, in a memorable semifinal showdown at Plainville High School on March 14.
Newington, the top-seed in Class L, held off a pesky Panthers from Storrs, who entered as the No. 5-seed.
In a game that was eerily similar to the team’s CCC loss to East Hartford, the Nor’easters flipped the script in the semifinal win.
Just like the conference finals, it was a low-scoring game and Newington trailed in the fourth.
With E.O. Smith leading by three points with less than three minutes to play in regulation, Newington’s senior captain Lilly Ferguson took over.
Ferguson drilled a three pointer from the top of the arc, tying the game at 34 with 2:46 left in regulation.
After a series of miscues by both teams, E.O. Smith’s Kate McAvoy was called for a carry, giving possession back to Newington with 37.2 left on the clock.
Newington held possession for the next 34 seconds before Karissa Zocco was fouled, sending the seasoned senior to the line for a pair of foul shots.
“I was super nervous,” said Zocco. “I knew if I make one of these we’re going to Mohegan and I knew if I missed the season could potentially be over. I didn’t want that for me or the team. I just had to go out there and make one for the team.”
Zocco calmly made the first free throw before missing the second, causing a scramble for a loose ball which drained the rest of the clock.
“That is a moment that she has been waiting for her entire career here at Newington. I knew she would knock down the shot,” said Newington head coach Tancredi.
Ferguson, who scored a game-high 16 points, said she was not about to let the Nor'easters lose for a second time in heartbreaking fashion.
“We’ve been through this before, we didn’t want the same thing to happen, we didn’t want the same outcome. I told the girls ‘let's not have this happen again’. We were getting to Mohegan one way or another,” said Ferguson, who added that she had full trust in Zocco. “I knew she was going to make it. She always comes through in the clutch. She’s my sister; she’s literally my best friend. I had all the faith in her.”
In the CCC championship loss to East Hartford, Newington held the ball for nearly the entire last minute of the game and Ferguson made a pair of clutch free throws to put the team up two before the Hornets made a miraculous baseline three to win.
“Every game and every situation is a learning experience,” Tancredi recalled about the last-second loss to East Hartford.
Zocco added, “That East Hartford game really prepared us for this one. I am super proud of these girls; we’ve worked hard all season. The coaching staff has been amazing and we have great fans that come out and support us. It was a well-earned win.”
In the state championship game, Newington played brilliantly on the defensive end in the first half and took a 22-20 lead into the break.
However, the high-powered Lancers of Notre Dame-Fairfield started the second half on a 17-6 run before cementing it away by beginning the fourth with a 8-2 spurt.
Aizhanique Mayo scored a game-high 22 for the Lancers.
Freshman Bela Cucuta led the Nor’easters with 13 points and Ferguson added a dozen.
The loss ended the high school careers for Ferguson and four other seniors; [Karissa] Zocco, Marlie Zocco, Arianna Barnes, and Adriana Romano.
All five played critical roles for Tancredi, who took over four years ago when the departing seniors were incoming freshmen.
The handful of seniors also each played in the championship game, including Romano who was sidelined with an injury for a majority of the second half of the season but was able to dress and play the final minute at Mohegan.
It’s a group that Tancredi said he will not soon forget.
“It has been such a joy to coach this team and this senior group,” said Tancredi, ““I love them. They’ve meant everything to the program.”
Bela Cucuta / Lilly Ferguson
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Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin