Bacon Academy girls’ basketball is heading back to the Mohegan Sun Arena for the second time in a month after winning a pair of memorable state tournament games.
The Bobcats defeated Cromwell 45-29 on March 8 and then eliminated East Hampton 30-26 on March 14, earning a spot in the Class M championship game, slated for this weekend against Holy Cross.
Last Tuesday night’s win over Cromwell was bittersweet for seniors Valerie Luizzi and Emma Mancuso.
The bitter part was they were playing their final game at Dave Shea Gymnasium inside Bacon Academy High School and the sweet part was the 16-point triumph over the Panthers in the Class M quarterfinals.
“It was crazy to run out here the last time. It’s crazy because the last four years have gone by wicked fast,” said Mancuso
Luizzi added, “I definitely wanted to leave it out there and give it my all. I knew it could be our last game, so I wanted to go out with a bang.”
After falling behind in the early stages of the game, the Bobcats roared back with a 15-2 run to end the first quarter.
Luizzi had a nifty baseline layup to give the home team a 19-6 advantage early in the second quarter and then later canned a three pointer, sparking a 9-3 run.
Junior Marissa Nudd banked in a shot to beat the first half buzzer, giving the home team a 27-14 advantage at the break.
Ashley Lizotte, the team’s third senior, has been sidelined with an injury. During her recovery, she has become another coach on the sidelines, showing support for her fellow seniors and mentoring her younger teammates.
“We have been playing together forever and we have great team chemistry. We can all count on each other when we are out here. It’s great knowing we are a team and even though Ashley is hurt, she is just as much a part of the team than we are. We are also playing for her as well,” added Luizzi.
In Lizotte’s absence, a group of young players have emerged. Sophomore Emily Ferrigno, along with freshmen Katelyn Novak and Elizabeth Glover are all logging big minutes and contributing on the court.
Starting sophomore Cara Shea has also shouldered more of a load.
“They are great under fire. We’ve had to put them in because we’ve had a lot of injuries all year,” Bacon Academy head coach John Shea said. “We have been through a lot of tough stuff so we just have to play who we’ve got and they’ve played a lot older than they are.”
Mancuso said that the younger girls have fit right in, adding. “They have stepped up and we couldn't do it without them.”
Luizzi opened the third quarter by knocking down her second from beyond the arc thanks to a beautiful crosscourt inbounds pass from Ferrigno. The Bobcats eventually opened up a 36-16 lead in the third before cruising to the comfortable victory.
Nudd scored a game-high 18 points and Luizzi finished with 14 to supply a bulk of the offense, but it was the team’s defensive effort that made the difference.
Bacon used a trapping zone defense, doubling and sometimes tripling the ball, particularly in the corners. Cromwell, who came in averaging 52 points per game, was held to a season-low in points and limited to 18% shooting from the field, hitting only 11 of 62 shots.
“[Defense] was a big key tonight,” said coach Shea, who added that he put in the trapping defense recently. “It worked pretty well. We just have to keep working at it and get better at it.”
Mancuso said that the Bobcats knew they had to be more aggressive team than the Panthers, adding “They are obviously a physical team so we knew to win the game we had to get on the ground, get loose balls, and grab rebounds.”
The victorious home finale propelled the Bobcats into the next round where they would edge the Bellringers of East Hampton at Plainville High School—the neutral site for the semifinals showdown.
Again the Bobcats fell behind early on, tallying only three points in the first quarter.
Luizzi, who was held scoreless in the opening quarter, hit a straight away triple on Bacon’s first possession of the second quarter to start the rally.
At halftime, Luizzi went into a phone booth and put on her cape before scoring seven straight points early in the third quarter to bring the Bobcats within one.
“We knew they were going to come out strong,” Luizzi said. “This is one of the closest games we’ve had and we knew we couldn't rush or make bad passes. We just needed to take control of the game and make it at our speed.”
With two minutes left in the third quarter, Mancuso hit a mid-range jumper to give the Bobcats their first lead of the game at 20-19.
The team’s battled back and forth down the stretch before Nudd put the Bobcats up for good when she made a spinning layup with 5:58 to play in regulation.
Leading 28-26, Luizzi was fouled with 4.6 seconds remaining and calmly sank both free throws to finish off the Bellringers.
“I was nervous but we’ve been practicing them every day. Marissa told me ‘just like in practice’,” Luizzi said of the free throws. “I decided to clear my head of every thought and just go for it.”
Luizzi scored a game-high 17 points, a dozen coming in the second half. She outscored the Bellringers (12-10) by herself over the final 16 minutes.
Next up is the championship game against the undefeated Crusaders of Holy Cross, who enter the title tilt 23-0. Tip-off is slated for 10 a.m on Sunday, March 20 at Mohegan.
It will mark the first time the Bobcats have been in the state title game since 2017 and they are seeking their first state championship since 2012.
Following a loss to New London in the Easter Connecticut Conference (ECC) finals at Mohegan Sun on Feb. 22, Bacon Academy’s road back to the casino was straight forward, needing to win three state tournament games.
They did just that, leaning on a stout defense and limiting the trio of tourney opponents below 30 points per game.
In order for Bacon’s second time around the sun to yield championship results they will need a similar defensive performance against the Crusaders, who are averaging 71 points per game.
Win or lose, coach Shea will have his three seniors beside him for the final time.
“They've been a joy to coach,” said Shea. “They are great leaders and they do everything academically and they are really good ball players and captains. I’ve enjoyed it and I’m lucky to have them.”
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin