HARTFORD >> What a difference a year makes.
The conversations around the water cooler a year ago after Capital Prep-Mercy I failed to live up to all the hype centered on the Trailblazers. Just how good was this team that won by 40 and ran roughshod over the Tigers? Who was this team that turned a No. 1 versus No. 2 matchup into another routine night at the office in the Constitution State Conference?
My answer was Capital Prep was the best high school girls basketball team that I had ever seen. They had size, speed and quickness. They had guards who could handle the ball and make 3-point shots. And they were led by a McDonald’s and Parade All-American named Kiah Gillespie.
Gillespie, a two-time Gatorade State Player of the Year, was one of the greatest players in state history. In her first collegiate game with Maryland, she scored 15 points and grabbed eight rebounds to help the Terps’ win their season opener against UMass-Lowell.
Yup, the 2015 Trailblazers were as good as advertised. They went on to easily win their third straight state championship. When the final rankings came out, Capital Prep was voted No. 15 … in the nation!
On Monday night Connecticut basketball fans were treated to another No. 1 versus No. 2 matchup. And even though Capital Prep-Mercy II wasn’t nearly as hyped, even though both coaches didn’t think their respective teams brought their A games, even though there were too many turnovers, too many missed shots and too many occasions where bodies were landing in a heap under the basket, Prep’s exciting 49-43 win before a huge crowd in the Trailblazers’ Hartford gymnasium left us with more juicy questions to ponder.
Related: No. 1 Capital Prep staves off No. 2 Mercy’s upset bid
How good is Mercy? Or even better…how good is Mercy going to become?
Is Capital Prep finally beatable?
Mercy coach Tin Kohs might not agree but I believe the Tigers showed amazing resiliency and toughness Monday night against the best team in the state. Pundits have felt all season that Mercy’s No. 2 ranking was a little too high for a team that lost Division I players Kendra Landy (Fairfield) and Maura Fitzpatrick (Marist) to graduation.
“We proved everybody wrong,” Mercy senior guard Destine Perry said.
But Kohs wasn’t happy with a five-minute stretch in the third quarter when Mercy was held without a field goal as Prep turned a 26-25 deficit into a 39-27 lead.
“It came down to toughness and they just killed us on the offensive boards in that run,” Kohs said. “They just shot it and went and got it, shot it and went and got it and they made free throws when we fouled them on the third attempt. And that’s disappointing. We’re bigger than them. We should have exposed them on the offensive boards.”
Kohs is right. Mercy was bigger. And will be bigger than a lot of teams they face this season.
The Tigers’ bigs, however, all happen to be underclassmen – sophomores Samatha Gallo, Meghan DeVille, and Samantha Chapps, and juniors Mariah Dunn and Keri Kernisan. All five are getting better with each game (DeVille is just coming off an injury) and it’s almost scary to think how good the Tigers will be when they reach their full potential.
Capital Prep’s sensational senior forward Desiree Elmore got a little preview. Elmore destroyed the Tigers a year ago, pouring in a game-high 32 points in Prep’s 88-48 win. But Gallo, DeVille, Dunn and Chapps harassed Elmore into a 4 for 16 shooting night from the field. Elmore, who is headed to Syracuse, finished with 13 points, including just four in the second half.
“We were stagnant on offense,” Capital Prep coach Tammy Millsaps said. “We just didn’t play with much continuity tonight and it was a struggle. But you reflect on these kinds of games and it’s good to be in a dogfight every now and then.”
If anything, Mercy’s near upset – the Tigers had the ball trailing 43-41 with 50 seconds left – gave hope to some of the other schools in Class L, teams like New London, New Fairfield, Northwest Catholic, Bacon Academy and Daniel Hand, all of whom could face Capital Prep in the state tournament.
The last Connecticut team to beat the Trailblazers in the regular season was Windsor, 46-43, back on Dec. 15, 2011. The last team to beat Prep in the state tournament was Coginchaug, whose Big Three of Sam Mancinelli, Lauren Esposito, and Audrey Biesak topped the Trailblazers, 58-48, in the 2012 Class S final.
Prep’s win over Mercy was their 70th straight over a Nutmeg State team. But the Tigers (11-1) may have found a successful blueprint. It starts on the defensive end and it starts with stopping Elmore, who is Prep’s only senior. And if you can’t stop her, which is the case on most nights, than you’re going to have to find a way to disrupt her because she is also a terrific playmaker.
“We’re a young team and we’re going to make mistakes,” Elmore said. “It keeps us on our feet and it keeps us humble. Just because we’re used to blowing teams out, doesn’t mean every game is going to be a blowout. We need some of these two point and three point wins to make sure that we see the stuff that we need to work on and know we can do a lot better than what we’re doing.”
That’s the beauty of high school sports. One year can make all the difference in the world.
Kiah Gillespie is playing for the University of Maryland. And New London, New Fairfield, Northwest Catholic, Bacon Academy and Hand took notice on Monday night.