The inaugural girls’ basketball Holiday Classic in Wethersfield wrapped up with a humdinger as Rocky Hill defeated the host Eagles 43-38 in a back-and-forth battle decided late in the fourth quarter.
“I was looking forward to this game all year. We talked during the summer and decided to do this Holiday Classic as a division game. Wethersfield and Rocky Hill is always a good game,” Terriers’ coach Allyson Smith-Toulouse said following the team’s fifth win in six games.
The fifth-year coach and Wethersfield coach Jeff Russell run similar programs, preaching discipline yet allowing their teams to play with a sense of urgency on both ends of the court.
“I think we just sort of wore out and I think we ran out of gas,” said Russell, whose team was battling the top notch Terriers and an illness that affected a handful of girls during the holiday week.
“Pressing kind of forces an up tempo game and sometimes it’s to both of our favors but tonight I wanted to try and slow it down a little bit and make good sound decisions,” added Smith-Toulouse.
Senior Grace Moore came off the bench to score four points, all coming in the decisive final quarter. The senior regaining the lead for the road team midway through the fourth with a pair of free throws and then scored following an offensive rebound a minute later, providing Rocky Hill the lead for good at 38-37.
“When she plays well we are hard to beat. She’s still getting off the field a little bit, but she’s a great athlete and I’m incredibly impressed with her IQ and her poise,” Smith-Toulouse said of Moore, who is fresh off an all-state soccer season in the fall, “She’s a senior athlete and she understands game situations.”
Nikki Lukens lead all scorers with 15 points and set up several of her teammates with timely passes in big moments.
“She’s really not a true point guard, but she has to fill that role with us because we don’t have a true point guard. We’re working on her vision and she knows that no matter what play we run she’ll be able to get the ball back on the weak side,” Smith-Toulouse said of her leading scorer, who is averaging 18 points per game, “Last year she was still coming into her own and now we’re putting her into more situations where she is more of a floor captain. Her talent continues to grow and her mentality for the game has improved. When the game is on the line she knows what she has to do and we have a really good inside game and I think that helps alleviate the pressure on her a little bit from a scoring standpoint.”
It took a while for Lukens and the offense to get going as Wethersfield scored the first four points of the contest and led most of the first quarter until Lizzy Denardo drained a three pointer right before the first quarter horn to tie the game at 10.
A pair of free throws by Aleksa Peterson early in the second gave the Terriers their first lead of the game.
Peterson calmly knocked down two more free throws late in the fourth quarter to put the game on ice.
“She’s been our starting two guard and games like this give her a big moment to learn and get better,” Smith-Toulouse said of the sophomore, who also had a key steal late in regulation, “She’s also young and during a timeout I told the team whatever you think you did good or bad to get to this moment it doesn’t matter and these last two minutes are all that matters. I thought she kind of reset herself after that and she made two huge plays for us.”
Early in the fourth Wethersfield seized momentum, scoring six straight to regain a 35-31 lead.
Freshman Gabriella Amoddio started the run with a layup following an offensive rebound. She also nailed a three from straight away late in the third quarter, which gave the Eagles a two-point lead at the time.
Amoddio is one of several first-time varsity players getting opportunities during crucial game moments for Russell.
“I think she grew into that role tonight,” the second-year coach said of Amoddio, who received her first significate playing time of the season, “We’re deep defensively but we’re not deep offensively. We’re trying to find that mix of players that can play both ways and I think we got better tonight even if we didn’t come away with a win. These games are always good to be in and I think the younger players grow a lot during these games.”
Senior Cheyenne-Mone Smith led the home team with 11 points and sophomores Alice Kelly and Isabella Samse each chipped in with a half dozen.
The crosstown and conference rivalry game was the star on top of the first Holiday Classic, which started last Wednesday and also featured Maloney and Rockville.
On the opening night, Wethersfield breezed by Maloney 61-26 behind 14 points from Smith and double doubles from Kelly and Nicole Gwynn, who each tallied 13 points and 10 rebounds.
Rocky Hill crushed Rockville 49-25 thanks to a balanced scoring effort. Lukens, Peterson, Moore, and Denardo each scored nine.
The tourney is a good early-season measuring stick for both squads and gives extra reps for their deep and talented lineups.
“Winter break is tough because there’s two ways to go at it. Sometimes you schedule these things and it’s hard because you don’t get a full practice in or you get a limited amount of time so you’re going into games underprepared or playing back to back nights. But I’ve also been in situations where you don’t play over the break and you’re having seven, eight days off and it’s hard to get back,” said Russell.
The extra games are nothing new for the experienced Terriers.
“I’m incredible proud. 5-1 going into the New Year is huge. The CCC is cut throat and we have a bullseye on our back this year because everyone knows that we’re a team to beat. We’re a seasoned team and I think we’ve responded well to the challenge so far,” added Smith-Toulouse, “I’m still looking for more consistency and poise from my seniors. We need to deliver like we did tonight. It was ugly but when it was time to show up push through we did.”
Rocky Hill next travels to Newington this Friday, Jan 5 for a 6 pm tip.
Wethersfield ended 2017 at 3-3 after falling to Bristol Eastern 59-51, but rebounded with a 59-41 victory over New Britain on Wednesday.
As for the rubber match, the Terriers and Eagles won’t meet again until Feb 9. Have no doubt that the second meeting will have the same intensity as the Holiday Classic and should have a tourney feel with the real tournaments starting later that month.
Wethersfield's Isabella Samse guards Rocky Hill's Aleksa Peterson during the Terriers 43-38 victory last Thursday
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin