CROMWELL – Holding a 12-point lead and the ball for the final 38.8 seconds of the first half, Cromwell’s girls basketball team went to work on a set play it practices regularly.
The Panthers moved it around the perimeter, but it wasn’t clear who would get the last shot until junior forward Najla Cecunjanin popped out behind the arc. She gathered in a pass from Vanessa Stolstajner with less than 5 seconds to go and buried a 3-pointer from the left side just before the buzzer sounded.
It was one of many well-executed plays by the Panthers in their 64-42 win over Coginchaug on Monday night at Jake Salafia Gymnasium.
The win was Cromwell’s ninth in a row and 44th straight in Shoreline Conference play. The Panthers are 13-2 overall with five regular-season games left before the Shoreline tournament, which they are aiming to win for a fourth consecutive year.
“We try to take advantage of situations,” Panthers coach Kelly Maher said. “You don’t know what’s coming down the road. When we have the ball in situations like (a last possession of a half), we try to execute scoring at the end. You don’t know when you’re going to have to do that and there (might be) no timeouts. It is something we look to do and challenge the players to execute.
“That time, it just happened to work.”
Stolstajner scored a game-high 22 points for Cromwell, while Cecunjanin had a terrific all-around game with 13 points, 15 rebounds, six assists and four blocked shots.
“That’s what Najla can really do for us,” Maher said. “A lot of times I think it goes unnoticed what she can bring to the table. She has post moves, can pull outside, set people up, rebound the ball, start the break. To be where we are right now, she is important for us.”
Coginchaug lost to Cromwell for the second time in as many weeks and has dropped its last four games to fall to 8-7 overall. The Blue Devils won last year’s CIAC Class S championship and will be back in the field this year, but coach Chris Watson said his players have to finish well.
“We’ve been struggling, there’s no doubt about it, for all sorts of reasons,” Watson said. “The message to the players right now is we have two weeks and (five) games left. If we can have a good two weeks, we can back in the right frame of mind moving into the tournament.”
“It’s not even about wins and losses at this point,” he added. “That doesn’t even matter. In the next two weeks we have to get in a situation where we have something going again, rather than feel like we’re sliding, sliding. We just have to find a way.”
Cromwell built a 12-6 lead after one quarter, and as often has been the case this season, the Panthers had a big second quarter to start pulling away.
Stolstajner scored Cromwell’s first 10 points of the quarter. Her fourth field goal in that stretch came from a Cecunjanin assist, and a lay-up following an offensive rebound put the Panthers ahead 24-9 with 2:28 to go.
Coginchaug senior guard Jessica King hit a 3-point shot to slow Cromwell’s run, but Cecunjanin’s 3-pointer just 13 seconds later restored her team’s 15-point lead. Molly Shields scored in the lane for Coginchaug, and after Stolstajner made one of two free throws, Taylor McDermott’s baseline jumper cut the Blue Devils’ deficit to 12.
Then came Cecunjanin’s 3-pointer to give Cromwell a 31-16 lead at the break.
“It’s tough when she’s playing like that because she’s so tough to defend,” Maher said. “If you put a guard on her she can post up. if you put a post player on her, she can pull it out. It’s a credit to her and the work she did this summer.”
Jessica Berens scored in the opening seconds of the third quarter to get Coginchaug within 13 of the lead – the closest they would be the rest of the way.
King scored 14 points, the only Blue Devil in double figures. Cromwell’s defense kept Coginchaug’s tall front line in check on the offensive end — Kelly Turecek scored seven, and Berens (12 rebounds) and Shields (seven boards) had six points each.
“Cromwell did a great job of defending our size,” Watson said.
Junior guard Sadie Budzik finished with 13 points on 6 of 9 shooting for Cromwell.