NORWALK — When Norwalk won the FCIAC girls basketball championship on Thursday by defeating Trinity Catholic in the title game, it knew there was still plenty left to accomplish.
Though thrilled to capture the conference championship, a couple of days later, the Bears’ thoughts turned to winning their second title of what’s been a season to remember thus far.
Showing the determination of a team with state championship aspirations, top-seeded Norwalk took the first step toward achieving their ultimate goal, registering a 70-28 win over visiting Greenwich Tuesday night in the opening round of the CIAC Class LL Tournament.
The 24-0 Bears, the No. 1-ranked squad in the state, advanced to the tournament’s Round of 16, where they will host No. 16 Staples on Friday at 7 p.m.
Norwalk, which received points from nine different players, was paced by 14 points from senior guard Ashley Wilson and 13 points from junior guard Belinda Hunte. Sophomore forward Jakara Murray-Leach, who powered the Bears in the FCIAC finals, added 10 points for the victors.
Using an effective man-to-man defense, to go along with full-court pressure, Norwalk made it difficult for No. 32 Greenwich (6-15) to consistently get into its offense.
“We’ve been determined right from the go, we wanted to win FCIACs and states,” Wilson said. “So now that we’ve won FCIACS, we want it to win states even more than we already did. We didn’t know how they were going to come out tonight and we treated it as any other game and did what we needed to do to beat them.”
Norwalk held a 22-7 lead after the first quarter and took a 36-11 advantage into halftime. Murray-Leach, Wilson and Hunte scored eight points apiece in the first half for the Bears.
“When it comes to the tournament, you can’t let down,” Norwalk coach Ricky Fuller said. “You have to keep your foot on the gas and keep playing. The last game we played was a championship game last Thursday, so the team was hungry to get out there and play.”
The Cardinals, who were awarded the final spot in the Class LL Tournament, received a team-best 12 points from senior center Taylor Stamos.
“Norwalk is a great team that’s well-balanced inside and out,” GHS coach Chrys Hernandez said. “They lost in the tournament last season, so they came back this year with the purpose of winning it all and it shows.”
Following a Stamos basket, Hunte made fastbreak layup and Murray-Leach swished a 3-pointer from the left side, putting the home team on top, 22-7, after the first quarter.
Clamping down on defense, the Bears held the Cardinals to four second-quarter points, while Hunte flourished in transition.
“We work on defense all the time in practice, defense our key,” Hunte said. “We also emphasize our defensive play. On offense, we moved the ball around to everyone and got open looks.”
Said Fuller: “Any time you can keep a team to under 40 points, you have a good chance of winning the game. Our team always focuses on defense, that’s how we get things going.”
Sophomore center Rene Naeva added nine points, junior guard Anaijah Morgan had six points and senior forward Sanaa Boyd scored seven points for the Bears, who continued to build on to their lead during the second half. The trio also sparked defense, which was adept at creating turnovers.
“This season has been so much fun,” said Boyd, one of the team’s captains. “From the beginning of the season, we said we wanted to win FCIACs and now we’re moving on to states which is very interesting. Now that it’s happening we are like ‘wow we can really win this whole thing.’
BONUS GAME FOR CARDINALS
Following their loss to Danbury in their regular-season finale, the Cardinals at first, thought their season was over. Then they learned they made the CIAC Class LL Tournament and would play the top-seeded Bears.
“I got an email saying I need to check the state standings and we were the last team to make it in,” Hernandez said. Eight wins is enough to make the tournament, but if there are not enough teams, they always look to fill the field with 32 teams. By power points, we were in. It was something we weren’t expecting, but it was a good experience. We called this our bonus game.”
The matchup marked the final game for Stamos and senior guard Michelle Morganti, both of whom served as captains.
“It was a privilege being a captain, because I was able to take what I learned the past four years and apply it to our season,” Stamos said. “This season was especially fun, not just because I was a captain. Our team had really good chemistry — the unity was there.”
Added Morganti: ” It was definitely a season of growth individually and as a team. There were a lot of positives, we played hard throughout the season and we had a lot of fun learning from each other and growing as a team.”
PLAYERS OF THE GAME
Wilson and Hunte were tough to stop from the start with their effective outside shooting and their ability to take the ball to the basket, while setting up their teammates.
“Winning FCIACs gave us motivation,” Hunte said. “We want to win states, so we are grinding harder. We’ve got to take it step-by-step.”
“It was a total team effort by our team,” Fuller said. “Everyone played their role and when that happens, you get outcomes like this.”
NORWALK 70, GREENWICH 28
GREENWICH 7 4 11 6 – 28
NORWALK 22 14 24 10 – 70
Julia Conforti 1 2-2 4; Jordan Moses 1 0-0 3; Ciara Munnelly 0 0-0 0; Michelle Morganti 1 2-2 4; Kristin Riggs 1 0-2 3; Kelly Martyanov 0 2-2 2; Taylor Stamos 6 0-0 12. Totals: 10 6-9 28.
Ashley Wilson 5 2-2 14; Carsyn Langhorne 2 0-0 4; Anaijah Morgan 3 0-0 6; Sanaa Boyd 3 1-2 7; Jakara Murray-Leach 4 0-0 10; Belinda Hunte 6 0-0 13; Grace Potochney 2 0-0 5; Rene Naeva 4 1-2 9; Serenity Mayhew 1 0-0 2. Totals: 30 4-6 70.
3-pointers: N – Wilson 2, Murray-Leach 2, Hunte, Potochney; G – Moses, Riggs.