UNCASVILLE — The Norwalk girls basketball team was eight minutes from seeing its unbeaten season end in the worst possible way in the CIAC Class LL championship game.
The No. 1 Bears were down 11 heading into the fourth quarter to No. 2 New London, but rather than folding, they began to chip away at the lead.
The Bears tied the game with 1:10 to go on a 3-pointer by Ashley Wilson.
Xaryia Melendez gave New London back the lead on a layup of her own but two Wilson free throws with 45 seconds left tied the game again.
A turnover, one of nine by New London in the fourth quarter, gave Norwalk the ball back with 29 seconds left and Norwalk coach Ricky Fuller let his players go, not calling a timeout.
Anaijah Morgan drove down the key, dishing to Naeva Rene under the basket, and Rene’s layup with :02 left on the clock completed the improbable comeback for Norwalk 55-53 over the Whalers.
“I feel great,” Rene said. “When we were down Coach was telling us to leave it all out on the court and finish the game because we didn’t come all this way to lose. I saw I was open, I got the ball and I went up as high as I could so we could be state champions. I knew I had to get it done.”
It is Norwalk’s third state championship, and its first since completing an unbeaten season in 2000.
For the Bears, the game could not have started any worse, as they went down 12-0 before scoring their first basket with 1:30 left in the first quarter.
New London built the lead up to as much as 13 points in the second quarter, leading 33-24 at halftime.
Norwalk outscored New London 19-6 over the final eight minutes, largely behind a swarming defense.
“I told them, ‘Just keep your heads down and keep grinding and try to get it to single digits and then in the fourth quarter, we’ll make our move,’ ” Norwalk coach Ricky Fuller said. “I’m the happiest person in the world. All year, we relied on different players on our team to come through, and tonight it was her night to make that basket. This is a special group of kids.”
New London was playing in the LL championship game for the third time in four years, winning in 2017 and losing in 2016.
“I think they wore us down. They had a few more bodies than we did and we had some foul trouble in the fourth quarter,” New London coach Holly Misto said. “There were some questionable things in the fourth quarter and when (Taina) Pagan fouled out of the game, that was huge.”
Pagan’s fifth foul came on a controversial call with 45 seconds left in the game.
New London’s Joniyah Bland-Fitzpatrick ran into her teammate, losing the ball with no foul called despite protests from New London claiming Bland-Fitzpatrick was pushed by a Norwalk player.
The loose ball was picked up by Wilson of Norwalk and Pagan promptly fouled her.
“I thought at the end (with 45.2 seconds left), (J. Bland) Fitzpatrick got intentionally fouled right in front of my bench, pushed in the back,” Misto said. “Next thing you know, Tai Pagan is picking up a fifth diving for a loose ball. That was very, very significant in the game. … It is what it is, it’s the game. You’re not always going to see everything. They did a nice job otherwise, three very experienced officials, but it seems like every time we’re here, something happens.”
Melendez led New London with 16 points, with Bland-Fitzpatrick adding 14.
For Norwalk, Belinda Hunte was the leading scorer with 15 points.
PLAYER OF THE GAME
Ashley Wilson, Norwalk. Wilson scored 12 points but none as big as her game-tying 3 and later her game-tying two free throws.
“I’ve been waiting for this for four years and now that it’s happened, I’m super happy,” Wilson said. “We were lacking the energy and not playing as well as I’d like. We knew in the second half, we had to pick everything up. When Naeva (Rene) got that ball in, I just ran to my teammates and we all hugged.”