BRIDGEPORT — The tension mounted with each possession during the second half of Thursday night’s Class M girls basketball tournament quarterfinal between Kolbe Cathedral and Capital Prep, as both teams tightened up their defense, making points extremely tough to come by.
But in a game where points were at a premium, senior guard Gracen Kerr provided just enough offense for the Cougars to advance to a game she experienced as a freshman — the state semifinals.
Kerr scored a team-high 15 points and junior forward Brianna Meekins added seven points, including four clutch foul shots in the final minute, to lead third-seeded Kolbe Cathedral to a hard-fought 40-39 win over No. 27 Capital Prep in the quarterfinal-round of the CIAC Class M Tournament before a big crowd at Cardinal Shehan Center.
Kolbe Cathedral (20-3) moved one step closer to an appearance in the championship game at Mohegan Sun, facing No. 2 Cromwell in Monday’s semifinal-round.
“It feels great, this is the farthest we’ve made it since I’ve been a freshman, so I’m overwhelmed,” Kerr said.
Added Kolbe Cathedral senior forward Trinity Stackhouse, who had six key points: “We put a lot of work in every single day we have practice to prepare for the teams we are going to play — so we worked hard for this. It feels amazing to make it to the semis.”
Capital Prep, which won the Class L title back in 2016, trailed 26-23 at halftime on Thursday, before falling behind 36-25 early in the fourth quarter. After scoring just two points during the third quarter, their offense got back in gear in the final quarter.
“We came in as the 27 seed and not many people anticipated we’d be here, but we knew we had a talented team,” Trailblazers coach Tammy Millsaps said. “This team was a team of fighters, a true example of what it means for us to be Trailblazers. We just kind of pieced it together game by and game this is the result.”
Maci Dorantes, a senior forward, scored a game-high 26 points, including five 3-pointers to pace Capital Prep (11-9). She swished a 3-pointer from the left corner with 0.6 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, cutting Kolbe Cathedral’s lead to 40-39. Yet the Cougars just had to get their hands on the ensuing inbounds pass for time to expire.
Dorantes converted a mid-range jump shot, then made a 3-pointer, giving the Trailblazers a 12-6 lead at the 2:35 mark of the first quarter. A pair of 3-pointers by Kerr and a basket from Shaniya Stancil evened the score at 14-14 for the Cougars early in the second quarter.
Converting a layup while being fouled, then making the ensuing foul shot, Dorantes put Capital Prep on top, 22-18 with 2:24 to go in the second quarter. The Cougars ended the first half strong however. Four points from Kerr and a basket apiece from Stackhouse and junior guard Aniyah Pettway gave Kolbe a 26-22 halftime advantage. Sophomore forward Aniyah Perry-McDonald added six first-half points for the Trailblazers.
An effective 2-3 and 3-2 zone defense helped slow down Capital Prep’s offense during a third quarter in which it was limited to two points.
“In practice, we worked on a packed in 2-3 zone, then Gracen said in warm-ups that they were hitting every shot they were taking,” Kolbe Cathedral coach Devon Parker said. “We said, once they hit their first three shots, we will extend our zone. Our specialty has been our ‘D’ all year, we’ve been holding teams to about 37 points per game, so we knew we could stay close as far as defense goes.”
Meekins’ layup put the Cougars ahead 29-23 with 4:44 to go in the third quarter. Kolbe Cathedral’s advantage grew to 36-25 when Meekins converted another shot at the 6:31 mark.
“We knew we had to come out and get a lead in the third quarter, because they were going to come out hard too,” Kerr said. “So we came out and worked hard.”
A 9-0 run fueled by Dorantes’ 3-point knotted the score at 36-36 1:48 left in the final quarter. She scored 14 straight points for her squad.
“We scored two points in the third quarter,” Millsaps said. “We came out a little flat in the third quarter, but once we got some confidence and rhythm back on offense, we starting hitting some shots. Give Kolbe credit for turning up the pressure and hitting some big shots.”
Meekins sank four crucial foul shots down the stretch, two of which came with 17 seconds remaining, to give the Cougars a 40-36 edge.
“That was the time to make them, because if I didn’t make them we wouldn’t have won,” Meekins said. “When I was on the foul line, I was just thinking that I had to make those shots and we had to win the game.”
PLAYERS OF THE GAME
Kerr was clutch throughout the game, converting shots in key moments, while showing her soft shooting touch.
Dorantes carried Capital’s offense throughout. She scored 14 second-half points, including all 14 of her team’s fourth quarter points.
“Kudos to her for hitting some big shots,” Millsaps said. “She spent a lot of hours in the gym by herself working on her shooting.”
“It’s tough to walk out of here with the one point loss, but as I was telling the kids, you can walk out with your head held high,” Millsaps said. “We had an opportunity to win the game at the end and that’s what you want, a chance to win.”
Said Parker: “When it got to the second half, every possession was like do-or-die. I told the team if we could get up 10, which we did at one point, we could win the game.”