The Hand girls basketball team was less than an hour away from playing arguably its biggest game in over a decade, but the Tigers were focused on watching what ended up being one of the CIAC state tournament’s greatest upsets.
Top-seeded Holy Cross rallied to beat Capital Prep, the three-time reigning Class L state champions and the No. 1 team in the final Register/GameTimeCT poll the last four seasons, on a game-winning basket by Aiyana’s Ward in the final seconds of last Saturday’s Class L state semifinal win at Sheehan.
“Capital Prep has achieved legendary status. To knock a team like that off, a juggernaut, they played so remarkably well,” Hand coach Tim Tredwell said about Holy Cross. “My kids’ eyes were wide open. It was crazy, a great high school basketball game. It was a cool moment to be there to witness.”
Then Hand took care of its own business, beating Pomperaug to set up Sunday’s Class L state final between the top two seeds. Game time is 3 p.m. at the Mohegan Sun Arena.
This is Holy Cross’ first appearance in a final since 2007, when those games were still held at Central Connecticut State University’s Detrick Gymnasium. After falling to Mercy in December, Holy Cross rattled off 19 consecutive wins en route to the Naugatuck Valley League tournament final, where the team fell to St. Paul.
“I’ve always felt playing teams better than you can only make you better,” Holy Cross coach Frank Lombardo said. “Looking back, that was the best thing for our basketball team. It got us refocused on the path of being better on the defensive end. Coaching for 23 years here, I’ve preach that hard work, teamwork and dedication pays off for you.”
The Crusaders refocused for the state tournament, winning three straight games before the entire tournament’s biggest victory.
“Obviously, Saturday was a special night for the program to beat a team like Capital Prep,” Lombardo said. “Three state semifinals in the last four years and then we proved we could get over the hump.”
Hand beat Mercy twice during the season and then reached the SCC tournament final for the third straight season. But Mercy won this time.
Like Holy Cross, the Tigers regrouped with four convincing victories to set up their first finals appearance since 1999.
“Our kids have done remarkable job focusing on the task at hand. We like to say, ‘Play Present’”, Tredwell said. “They are nice kids who work hard and pick each other up. It’s a remarkable group to be a part of.”
Both teams will have had about a week to prepare, minus some time due to the mid-week snowstorm. That’s plenty of time to become familiar with the opposition.
“Hand is a well-coached team that works extremely hard on the defensive end and defensive rebounding,” Lombardo said. “Their point guard (Gabby Martin) is very quick, very aggressive who creates havoc in the game off on the defensive end. It will be a huge challenge come Sunday.”
Said Tredwell: “When we won Saturday, win or lose on Sunday, I’ve gotten another week with this group of kids. … Holy Cross is going to be in your face (defensively) for 32 minutes. We have to be composed and stay calm.”