RHAM's Ailish Kleinhen is defended by Bacon Academy's Valerie Luizzi (near) and Ashley Lizotte on Feb. 3. RHAM won the game 43-39 behind 20 points from Kleinhen.
Bacon Academy girls’ basketball led for nearly 30 minutes against RHAM before the Raptors stole the game in the closing minutes to win 43-39 in front of a packed, spirited home crowd at RHAM High School on Feb. 3.
Senior Ailish Kleinhen drained a three-pointer with 2:24 remaining in regulation, giving the Raptors their first lead of the game as the home team closed out the contest on a 12-4 run.
Kleinhen finished with a game-high 20 points, coming off the bench to kick start an offense that was held scoreless for the first five minutes and netted only six points in the first quarter.
“We came out flat and missed some shots. We had to keep our energy up and just had to keep shooting,” said Kleinhen, who credited the team’s defensive intensity for keeping them in the game. “We started communicating better. We picked it up on defense and that translated to offense.”
RHAM head coach John McNair has a resilient roster that shook off the slow start and continued to stick to the game plan, which was to outgun and outrun a short-handed lineup from Bacon.
“All season my message to them is be confident and have fun,” said McNair. “I have trust in them that they can weather these storms. We were getting good looks, we just had to stick with it and hopefully the shots started falling.”
Behind prolific scorer Marissa Nudd, Bacon Academy jumped out to a 7-0 lead and held a 10-point advantage after the first quarter.
Playing against Bacon’s zone defense, the Raptors missed several open shots to start the game before Kleinhen hit a three-pointer with three minutes remaining in the first quarter to brake the scoring drought. On the following offensive possession, Grace Whitmore canned another triple to narrow the deficit to a single point.
Bacon then rattled off nine straight points, four by Nudd, who banked in a shot as the first quarter buzzer sounded.
After allowing 16 points in the first quarter, RHAM cranked it up defensively, allowing only 23 points the rest of the way
“My philosophy is always defense first,” added McNair. “As a player I love offense and we like to get up as many shots as possible, but I coach defense first. [Defense] is always how we can get back into games or stay in games and tonight we had that defensive effort.”
Kleinhen stole a pass to start the second quarter and then drained three pointers on consecutive possessions. All told, Kleinhen scored 13 of the Raptors 24 points in the first half.
“I am so proud of Ailish. She deserved to have a game like this tonight,” said McNair. “She’s the type of the kid that I can always rely on to face that adversity and rise about it.”
The Raptors took the defensive intensity to another level in the second half, holding the Bobcats to five points in the third quarter. A layup by Kathy Chapman narrowed the gap to 27-25, but again Bacon struck gold in the closing seconds of a quarter when Cara Shea banked in a shot with 3.2 second left in the third quarter.
Kleinhen knocked down a three with 4:39 left in regulation, narrowing the deficit to one, and then, following a pullup jumper from Bacon’s Valerie Luizzi, RHAM’s Sarah West hit a triple to tie it at 35.
Two possessions later, Kleinhen knocked down her fifth and final from beyond the arc. The senior sharp-shooter said she loves the pressure of close games, adding “I live for games like this. It’s the adrenaline for me, it’s a great feeling.”
Bacon’s Ashley Lizotte responded with a layup before Kleinhen set up Chapman for a bucket, giving the Raptors a 40-37 lead.
Chapman then hauled down a key offensive rebound before West sealed the game with a pair of free throws.
Chapman, who was recently named as a team captain following a game against East Catholic, has become an unsung hero for McNair.
“She is a team-first kid who is legitimately here for the success of the team. She is all out all the time and she always makes the right basketball play,” the second-year head coach said of Chapman.
West finished with nine points, all in the fourth quarter. The junior was tasked with the tough defensive assignment of guarding Nudd.
Nudd scored seven in the opening quarter, but was limited to three the rest of the way.
West and Nudd know each other well from playing Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) together.
“Honestly the competitiveness of Marissa kept me driven the whole game. Even when my shots weren’t falling, I wanted to make sure my defense was on and once I saw my defense was on that pushed my offense,” said West, who also likes the excitement of close games, “That aspect of being on the edge and battling it out will help us once we play better teams.”
McNair praised West for taking on the defensive challenge and staying resilient, adding, “Sarah’s brings so much more than just scoring the basketball. She plays with toughness and grit and she is constantly on the offensive boards.”
The border-battle was a matchup of two of the top teams in the state. The win improved RHAM to 14-2 and dropped Bacon to 13-2.
Bacon’s head coach John Shea hopes the game is a character-builder for his Bobcats, “We’ve shown that we didn’t have a lot of offense tonight and we’re starting at the bottom. There’s only one way up and that’s to get better so that’s what we have to do. It’s a long season, so we’ll try and get back on track.”
Prior to the RHAM game, the Bobcats had won seven straight games and were without the services of senior center Emma Mancuso against the Raptors.
Coach Shea has liked what he’s seen from his team in previous game, saying, “They play hard and defensively we can leave our mark. We’ve had some good shooting nights, but not tonight. We just have to shoot better and cut down on turnovers.”
Following the loss to RHAM, Bacon rebounded with consecutive wins to improve their record to 15-2.
On Feb. 5, the Bobcats beat 56-55 over Ledyard behind a monster night from Nudd, who had career-highs in both points and rebounds, scoring 29 and grabbing 14 boards. Luizzi sealed the game with a late free throw, scoring 11 points to go along with seven rebounds and four steals.
Four nights later, they defeated Old Lyme 43-29. Nudd and Luizzi each had 16 points and combined for 18 rebounds.
The Bobcats close the regular season with three straight home games, including a bout with Woodstock Academy this Saturday, Feb 12 at 3:30 p.m.
RHAM will celebrate their seniors this Friday, Feb 11 when they host East Hartford. Kleinhen, Chapman, Lauren Fenton, Katherine Hancin, and Addison Brown will be recognized at RHAM High School prior to the game, which tips at 6:45 p.m.
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin