WALLINGFORD >> The Greenwich girls basketball team has advanced to the state finals for the first time in school history, but it was not without a near incredible comeback by E.O. Smith that almost clipped the wings of the Cardinals.
Once leading by 21, 10th-seeded Greenwich was held to five points in the third quarter and the Panthers fought all the way back to take a 1-point lead with 4:51 left in the fourth.
But they could not hold off Northwestern-bound Abbie Wolf and Co. as the Cardinals beat the 3rd-seeded Panthers 69-60 at Sheehan High School on Friday in the semi-finals of the Class LL state tournament.
“My vision has always been making it to Mohegan Sun,” Wolf said. “This is not only the first time I have, but our program in general, so when coach told us that, I was ecstatic. Wow, we’re going to be there and what is it, 10 days? We’ve got to work our butts off in practice and it will come in the game.”
Greenwich will play FCIAC rival and conference tournament champion Stamford for the state championship at Mohegan Sun during the weekend of March 19-20. The Cardinals beat the Black Knights on Feb. 3, 64-55.
From the final basket of the first quarter to 3:22 left in the second, Greenwich built up a menacing 21-point lead with a 19-0 run before E.O. Smith’s McKenna Dale knocked down her second of five 3-points to — well — put a band-aid on a gaping hole. She finished with a game-high 26 points.
“Defense brought us there,” Wolf said. “We knew their personnel. We watched a lot of film. We closed out on their shooters and secured the rebounds. So that’s what got us the lead. But I told them at halftime: They’re a great team, they’re not going down like that even though they were down by 20.’”
Kaleigh Dale followed with a jumper for the Panthers, but the Cardinals answered with five of their own. One of two free throws just before the break for Cierra Brecsia made it a 20-point lead.
“We definitely wanted to strike hot and strike early,” Greenwich coach Chrys Hernandez said. “And we did that. The girls were focused. They had a lot of energy coming in here. We knew E.O. Smith was capable of putting up a lot of points. We knocked down our open shots in the first half.”
But not so fast.
E.O. Smith came out of the break and scored the first eight points getting the home court-like atmosphere rocking again.
Wolf knocked down a pair of free throws, but down on the other end Abby Vampatella put back a miss that seemed to spark the Panthers.
“We have been so good since the CCC tournament up until today of really sharing the ball and moving the ball and running our offense,”” E.O. Smith coach Mary Roickle said. “Today was just uneven. Maybe part of it was the jitters. This is the game that gets you to Mohegan.”
“And I thought we were really scared in the first four minutes. Instead of seeing the hunger that I’ve been seeing I saw Oh-my-God, dear-in-headlights.”
Greenwich girls win 69-60… Off to the SUN!! Great job Lady Cards!! pic.twitter.com/gWAoQzc4Ly
— Greenwich Rebounders (@GreenwichHoops) March 12, 2016
Caroline Beneville hit her second of three 3s to quiet E.O. Smith’s crowd for a short time. But Keeley O’Keefe had a strong put-back of her own sending the Panthers on an 11-0 run into the fourth quarter and getting them within single digits for the first time since 6:16 in the second.
McKenna Dale, who battled foul trouble much of the game, hit a 3 from the top of the key to start the 8-0 run that would give the Panthers their only lead of the game: 51-50 with 4:51 to play.
A Beneville 3-pointer regained the Cardinals the lead for good.
“They’re a very good team, very balanced,” Roickle said. “Everyone knows about Abbie Wolf. But we knew about Anderson and we knew about Caroline – No. 2 – and that inside-outside threat was too much for us.”
Dale did all she could do to will her team back, but she picked up her fifth foul with 1:55 left in the game and the Greenwich size just proved to be too much, outscoring E.O. Smith 8-5 down the stretch sans Dale becoming the lowest seed since Mercy in 2012 to reach the Class LL finals.
“We set this goal five years ago,” Hernandez said. “And to see it come to fruition in a year that I think many people would have counted us out, it just means everything. I’m so proud of them.”
Correction: A previous edition of this story incorrectly stated that Greenwich senior Abbie Wolf was committed to the University of North Carolina, she is committed to Northwestern University. Also, Greenwich’s Class LL finals opponent is Stamford, not Stanford.
Greenwich 69, E.O. Smith 60
Greenwich: 20 22 5 22 – 69
E.O. Smith: 16 6 19 19 – 60
(at Sheehan High School, Wallingford)
Caroline Beneville 6 0-0 15, Kimberly Kockenmeister 2 1-4 5, Amanda Yu 0 0-0 0, Shaye Galletta 0 1-4 1, Emily Anderson 6 1-2 13, Abbie Wolf 6 7-8 19, Jayla Faison 3 10-12 16 – Total 23 20-30 69.
E.O. Smith (60)
Lindsey Perugini 0 0-0 0, Cierra Brescia 3 3-6 9, Isa Peczuh 2 0-0 5, Keeley O’Keefe 3 1-2 7, Kaleigh Dale 5 0-0 11, Renee Suchy 0 0-0 0, McKenna Dale 9 3-3 26, Abby Vampatella 1 0-0 2, Anna Panciera 0 0-0 0 – Total 23 7-11 60.
3-point goals: G – Beneville (3); EO – M. Dale (5), K. Dale, Peczuh.
Fouled out: EO – M. Dale, Peczuh.
Technical fouls: None.
Team records: Greenwich 19-4; E.O. Smith 25-3.