Midway through the second quarter of the girls’ basketball game between Wethersfield and Newington, the score was tied at 13.
That’s when the nerves settled down and the surging Eagles took flight, scoring the half’s final nine points to start a mammoth 35-6 run which extended into the fourth quarter. The end result was a 58-25 season-opening victory over the Indians last Wednesday night at NHS.
“They played for each other tonight and played at a level that even the refs were tired tonight. What we preached all preseason and all offseason is playing for each other. We can control our effort and sometimes we need to find ways to affect the game positively even if we can’t score or when we’re nervous, “said Wethersfield coach Jeff Russell, who liked the frenetic pace of the game, “That lends to our advantage and we hoped it would work out like it did and that we’d have more energy in the second half.”
Newington head coach Rick Bangs was impressed by his rivals composure, “It’s always fun playing Wethersfield, we always know what we’re in for. I thought they played great and I know they have a ton of kids that didn’t get a lot of varsity experience last year and they played like they had been out there forever tonight. They came out like a house of fire and we were on our heels. ”
Sophomore Nicole Gwynn found her groove during the second-half onslaught, scoring 15 of her game-high 19 points after the break. Gwynn and senior Cheyenne-Mone Smith (16 points) were all-around dynamos, scoring at will and heading the Eagles swarming press defense.
“I told them that we’re going to have the freedom offensively if we get 100% buy-in on defense and the two of them have bought in defensively like nothing I’ve ever seen,” Russell said of his returning all-conference duo, “They’re so gifted physically and they have high basketball IQs, so to put in that level of intensity on defense and to feel the free flow of confidence on offense is starting to pay off for them.”
Smith was a consistent force all night, scoring four points in each quarter and igniting the Eagles up-tempo offense with quick and precise outlet passes. Guard Isabella Samse was the benefactor of several of those passes, scoring 10 of her 14 points in the first half.
“I was worried about her the most because she was the only one that started tonight without varsity experience. She was starting her first varsity game in the opening night against our biggest rival and she stepped up and played with energy,” Russell said of his sophomore guard, who canned a pair of threes, “We talk about playing fast with the body but slow in the mind and I thought she did that tonight.”
Samse scored the Eagles first five points and often checked Newington’s all-conference guard Ashanti Frazier on the defensive end. Frazier, who was coming off a 23-point performance in the team’s 55-52 opening win over Berlin, scored a team-high 10 points for the Indians but missed most of the third quarter due to foul trouble.
“Ashanti is always learning. Sometimes you forget that she’s just a sophomore and she’s going to have to learn to play with fouls, but she’s still coming into her own as a player. She’s going to make mistakes from time to time, but she gives us a ton of good,” Bangs said of his floor general.
Frazier was one of eight Newington players to break into the scoring column Wednesday night. Olivia St. Remy and Maya Gajowiak each tallied four points and gathered several rebounds. The two are key pieces to a balanced rotation that can score from inside and out.
“I like to think that we can score. I don’t think the game tonight was indicative of us offensively whatsoever. We’re fairly experienced and we need to play like we’re experienced and not play like we’ve never seen a pressure defense before. We really wanted to be the aggressor but the turnovers really hurt us, especially early. We had talked at halftime about taking care of the ball and being aggressive on both ends, but give them credit they made plays and we gave them dozens of extra possessions,” added Bangs, who is attempting to replace the void left by last season’s leading scorer and senior captain Abrial Murray, “Sometimes a player like Abrial can be a crutch and you can lean on her, but the girls this year have to realize that they are all capable of contributing offensively and it’s not a matter of relying on one person. These are the growing pains of early in the season and I think these are just lessons that we’ll continue to learn every game.”
Bang’s team matched the road team point-for-point for the first dozen minutes of action, but the confident and deep rotation of Wethersfield proved to be too much.
“We have 17 girls right now in our program and every one of them dressed because I view them all as a valuable part of this team. I told them that the way we get better is that everyone is playing for the person next to them and everyone is buying into each other,” added the second-year coach, “They all have to be ready to go at any point in time. We never know how deep we are going to go into the bench, some nights it might be a ton and some nights it may not be.”
Gwynn, Smith, and Samse did most of the offensive damage, including scoring all of the team’s points in the first half.
After the break Juliana Mandile, Malena Mandile and Alice Kelly came out aggressive, combining for nine points in the pivotal third quarter, in which the Eagles outscored the Indians 25-6.
Last winter in his first season on the sidelines Russell implemented a speedy tempo and first-year assistant coach Ryan Alger has added another dimension this season.
“He’s been a tremendous help to me in terms of the energy in practice. He’s really good with the motivation stuff and he taught at West Point, so he’s got a great pedigree and reenergizes me and I think that it’s reenergized the team.”
The Eagles suffered their first loss on Saturday, 53-44 to Conard and will head back home next week for back-to-back games against Maloney and Rocky Hill on Wed, Dec 27 and Thurs, Dec 28. Both games tip at 7 pm.
Newington fell to 1-2 with a 51-44 loss to Farmington on Saturday and now have their first road game, traveling to Hartford Public on Thurs, Dec 21 at 5:45. It’s the team last game before the holiday break and Bangs is optimist that the team will soon be trending in the right direction.
“I know the kids that we have and I know the people we have. There’s just a part of us that needs to get hungrier and whether we win or lose I just want to be completive. I don’t have any doubt that we’ll be able to come back from this.”
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin