By Jimmy Zanor
@ShoreLineSports on Twitter
CROMWELL >> Since losing to Morgan in their second game of the season – the Huskies putting an end to a 29-game winning streak in the process – the Cromwell girls basketball team has reeled off 11 straight wins.
Yes, the defending Class M and Shoreline Conference champion Panthers have now won 40 of their last 41 games following Friday’s 53-31 victory over Old Saybrook at the Salafia Gymnasium.
Cromwell has weathered the early part of its schedule with a young team. They have Mercy transfer Nicole Rojas in the rotation now after the junior guard sat out the first 10 games. And, they have the reigning Shoreline Conference Player of the Year, senior forward Janelle Harrison, looking to finish her illustrious career in a big way before becoming a Hartford Hawk this fall.
“We’re getting better with each game,” said Cromwell coach Kelly Maher. “We’re getting more and more and comfortable with each other and we’re seeing flashes of it. Now, if we can just put it all together for four quarters.”
The Panthers led 20-14 early in the second quarter when Harrison, who scored her 1000 career point in last year’s state semifinal win against Weaver, keyed a 9-2 run with six straight points. Sophomore forward Maya Villard had a pair of blocks during the spurt, as well as a free throw that gave the Panthers a 29-16 lead with a minute to go in the first half.
Harrison, who scored 16 of her 19 points in the first half, converted a low post basket right before intermission that made it 33-21.
Cromwell then opened the third quarter with a 7-2 run behind a 3-pointer from senior guard Emily Appleby and a pair of baskets from Villard that stretched the lead to 38-21.
“We’re still mixing together with our team,” said Harrison. “I know it’s kind of late to be saying that but we have a real young team and we’re trying to find our game together and figure out what works best for us.”
Villard finished with 12 points, seven rebounds and three blocks.
“Cromwell’s a good team and Janelle Harrison and Mya Villard, that’s a tall order inside,” said Old Saybrook coach Steve Woods. “They present a problem. But we didn’t play as well as we had been playing. We need to make shots. I really believe we can beat them. We just have to have a little better game overall, especially offensively.”
Woods’ optimism stems from the play of senior guard Mia Neas, who is one of the leading scorers in the conference.
Neas poured in a game-high 23 points, including 15 in the first half that kept the Rams within striking distance. Neas had four rebounds, while junior guard Molly Beck had three assists, three rebounds and a pair of steals for the Rams (7-5, 7-4 SLC).
“Mia’s tough as nails,” said Woods. “It’s always uphill for us because we are so small. But we did a lot of good things. I think we showed signs that we can be effective against them. I’m looking forward to the rematch (Jan. 30 at Old Saybrook).”
Harrison had eight rebounds, while Appleby dished out six assists as the Panthers improved to 12-1, 11-1 SLC.
“(Janelle’s) one of our leaders,” added Maher. “She gets the ball inside and with such a young team we look to her and Emily a lot to settle the troops down, help them along defensively and really lead by example. There’s still a lot to work on but I like the fact we keep improving.”
The game was part of the 6th annual Coaches versus Cancer night where the Panthers boys and girls basketball teams join with the Cromwell community to raise and donate thousands of dollars in the hopes of finding a cure for cancer.
“It’s an annual event and it’s nice for the kids,” said Maher. “The kids plan it and do all the work for it with the (pink) shirts and everything else. We get them involved and it’s good for them to get involved in the community and do charity events.”