The Bullard-Havens girls basketball team will play for its third consecutive CTC Championship Thursday night, thanks to Ariana Garcia’s heroics in the semifinal round.
Garcia, a 5-foot-6 guard, has been a member of the roster for both championship seasons, but this year’s tournament carries a bit more importance for the senior.
It has been a difficult year for Garcia, who has dealt with rehabbing an ACL injury she sustained at the end of last season, as well as the recent death of her brother.
In the final 2018-2019 regular season game against Cheney Tech, Garcia tore her ACL, knocking her out of the postseason picture, as well as sidelining her from playing soccer in the fall.
“She was devastated when her knee went,” Bullard-Havens coach Dirk Rozarie said. “She was done for the season and she missed her soccer season with a good chance of missing this basketball season as well. Unfortunately because of the way insurance works in Connecticut, she wasn’t able to have the surgery until July. She did the rehab and I kept telling her not to rush because the bottom line was we didn’t need her at the beginning of the year, we needed her right now.”
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As it turned out, she was exactly what her team needed Tuesday night, scoring 20 points, including the game-winning buzzer-beater to defeat top-seeded Abbott Tech 49-47, a rewarding moment after a long rehab process.
“Rehab was very hard in the beginning,” Garcia said. “After surgery, it was especially hard. I couldn’t stand and I just started crying, I felt like I couldn’t do anything. It was like I was losing myself in the process. It was so hard to learn how to walk again and how to run again. When I started going to therapy more it got better, and it became easier for me once the healing process started to work and I was able to participate in drills with the team.”
Garcia sat out the first five games of this season.
“I was worried,” Garcia said. “I got nervous at the beginning when I didn’t get cleared to play because I thought I was going to miss the season. I ended up missing five games and in my first game back I scored 26 points against O’Brien Tech. It felt great coming back and actually using my talent for something and not just laying around doing nothing.”
Garcia has shown an impressive ability to deal with adversity in regards to her injury, as well as the death of her brother.
“My brother loved the game of basketball,” Garcia said. “He taught me some of the stuff I know. He loved the game. A lot of my family members love the game. My grandmother, my mom and my dad are my biggest supporters. They come to every single game, no matter how far it is, they will always come. Basketball is in my blood and my sports help me with everything. They help me with my self-esteem, they help me when I’m mad or upset, and sports help me clear my mind.”
On top of a strong support system, Garcia has found a second family on the court.
“My teammates are very supportive,” Garcia said. “If anything goes wrong they are always there and I can count on them. My coach is someone I can definitely count on, too. We are just one big family. We look after each other; we are our sisters’ keepers and we are family.”
With all of the excitement that came with the semifinal victory, Rozarie and the senior-laden Bullard-Havens team knows there is more work to be done.
“The girls understood that it was an exciting game, but it was still only a semifinal game,” Rozarie said. “They have a job to do still so while we celebrated on the floor, by the time we got on the bus, they understood that we still have more work to do.”
Rozarie believes much of his team’s success is rooted in the six seniors on his roster, many of whom played large parts in the semifinal game that were overshadowed by the remarkable finish.
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“Our senior leadership has been huge,” Rozarie said. “What got lost in the sauce yesterday is that Bella Simon was on (Abbott Tech’s) Iyana Barnes yesterday, who is a heck of a player, and she did exactly what she was supposed to do. She was supposed to D her up, speed her up and she was very much in the flow of the game. Also, Aaliyah Gilliam, we call her princess, had four fouls in the first half and had to sit out the entire third quarter. She was vocal on the bench and came out in the fourth quarter, and when we were down by one point, she hit two free throws to give us the lead at the time, that’s leadership. That is what we are looking for and all three of those seniors showed leadership by example.”
Bullard-Havens will stare down the final opponent in the way of its three-peat in Prince Tech Thursday night at Grasso Tech in Groton. The game starts at 6 p.m.
Bullard-Havens won both regular season matchups against Prince Tech, but the team is aware that this game is different.
“Two years ago we played Prince Tech in the championship and we had lost to them both games in the regular season,” Rozarie said. “We know the same thing could happen, we beat Prince twice this year, that doesn’t mean we are going to win the third one.”
It is fair to say that Rozarie and Garcia are seasoned when it comes to the CTC tournament.
“This is what we expect,” Rozarie said. “Every year we compete to win it and that is the only way I know how to coach and I’ve been doing it for 45 years. We are not surprised to be there and we expect to win.”
For Garcia, this third potential championship would carry special value.
“My brother is going to be watching me tomorrow,” Garcia said. “My family is going to be watching me as well, but I know he will be watching over me from heaven.”
“Winners want the ball,” Rozarie said. “Ari wanted the ball. If you watch the film, she is calling for the ball, and that is leadership by example. She has been that way from Day One. I remember in her first varsity game as a freshmen she hit for 43, but we had to really reel her in because she didn’t necessarily understand being a team player. Who she was to where she is now, it’s fantastic. She has come a long way in making her game better for all of us.”
“She is really good at compartmentalizing,” Rozarie said. “She is feeling it, but she isn’t going to let it affect her. That is her makeup, and for us, we try to make it all about family.”