GREENWICH — Sacred Heart Greenwich prides itself on being a second-half team, a characteristic that certainly surfaced during the final 16 minutes of action against Greenwich Academy in the semifinal round of the FAA Girls Basketball Tournament.
Holding just a four-point halftime lead against the Gators, the Tigers did what they’ve accomplished numerous most of the season — they pulled away with a decisive second half.
And another dominant second-half showing advanced the Tigers to a destination it hasn’t been in several years — the FAA final.
Senior center Sarah Eckerson scored a game-high 26 points, while senior guard Ryan Smith and junior guard Leah Atkins tallied 12 points apiece to power second-seeded host Sacred Heart to a 65-42 win over sixth-seeded Greenwich Academy in the FAA semifinals on Thursday.
The Tigers (18-5), who lost to Hamden Hall in the tournament semifinals the past two seasons, advanced to Saturday’s 4 p.m. FAA final, where they will visit top-seeded St. Luke’s School.
“I’m so excited for the whole team,” said Eckerson, who converted 10 of her 11 foul shot attempts. “Since I have been on the team, we’ve never been to the finals so it’s been a goal of mine. I’m so happy that my senior season, we’re able to make it to the finals.”
Starting strong, Greenwich Academy (6-15) bolted to an 11-5 lead 4:17 into the first half. But Sacred Heart raised its intensity on defense and utilized a halfcourt trap that forced several turnovers, which they turned into points.
“It’s been our Achilles Heel all year, turning the ball over,” GA coach Wes Matthews said. “We were right where we wanted to be in the first half, all we had to do was lock in defensively. You can’t beat teams giving up 30, 35 points in a half. They were physical and we started turning the ball over in the second half.”
Greenwich Academy played a box-and-one defense in an effort to slow Atkins down. Atkins didn’t score in the opening half, but registered 12 second-half points.
“I’m not used to getting box-and-one, so in the first half it took a little getting used to,” Atkins said. “I worked on cutting and tried to get open and in the end it worked. I had to work a little harder, got open a little more and finishing in the paint.”
Junior guard Francesca Sileo recorded a team-high 16 points, including four 3-pointers and senior guard Olivia Davis added 13 points for Greenwich Academy, which defeated Greens Farms Academy in the tournament’s quarterfinals.
“It all started with our defense at the beginning of the game,” Sileo said. “We were running, playing good defense and hitting our shots. We came out very strong. The second half, they put some pressure on us and we have a small bench, so everyone gets a little tired — it happens.”
TIGHT FIRST HALF
A 3-pointer from the right side from Sileo and a pair of free throws from Davis gave GA an 11-5 advantage at the 11:43 mark of the opening half. The Tigers slowly got into rhythm offensively and with 3:45 to go in the first half they tied it at 20-20 on Eckerson’s basket in the low post.
After Sileo’s two foul shots knotted the score at 24-24 with 1:33 remaining in the first half, Sacred Heart went on a 6-0 run, fueled by three points by Smith.
“It was a close game the whole first half, it was back and forth,” Sacred Heart coach Ayo Hart said. Our second half defense really carried us through.”
SEIZING THE MOMENTUM
Two 3-pointers by Sileo tied the score at 32-32 with 13:50 left in the second half. Then came a type of run the Tigers have become known for this season. Smith made a layup in transition while being fouled and swished the ensuing free throw, making it 35-32. Another Smith foul shot and an Eckerson basket put the home team ahead, 38-32 with just over 10 minutes left to play.
The Tigers’ lead grew to 10 points on sophomore Alana Frederick’s steal and it reached 18 at 56-38 when Atkins drove baseline for a layup at the 5:36 mark.
Meanwhile, GA had trouble getting good looks at the basket due to the effective halfcourt pressure Sacred Heart was applying. They played man-to-man defense throughout.
“They have good guards and they did a good job of stepping through the trap,” Hart said. “But we did a good job of anticipating the next pass.”
Smith noted the Tigers came out with additional energy in the second half.
“Our halftime talk is really important,” Smith said. “For the seniors, this was going to probably be our last home game on the court, so at halftime we said this is all for us guys. Give it your all, so that motivated us to give it our all. I’m just proud of the whole team for making it to the finals.”
Forward Josephine Genereux contributed seven points and freshman forward Caroline Schmitz had four points for Greenwich Academy.
“We were super organized, there were no gaps in our defense,” Genereux said. “We covered the middle really well and we had a lot of energy. They started to score points end of the first half and most of the second half.”
“We have a young team, give them credit for getting this far,” Matthews said. “This was a good experience for our young players.”
Said Sacred Heart senior forward Claire Liddy: “I don’t think there is a game this season where we haven’t scored more in the second half, then we did in the first half. We like to say we are a second half team. Our press is where we really shine.”
SACRED HEART 65, GREENWICH ACADEMY 42
GREENWICH ACADEMY (6-15)
Olivia Davis 5 3-6 13; Francesca Sileo 4 4-4 16; Josephine Genereux 3 0-0 7; Sophia Gianuzzi 0 0-0 0; Caroline Schmitz 2 0-0 4; Christina Maldonado 0 0-1 0; Josephine Evardine 1 0-0 2. Totals: 15 7-10 42.
SACRED HEART (18-5)
Ryan Smith 4 4-8 12; Alana Frederick 1 0-0 3; Mary Anne Gallagher 1 0-0 2; Claire Liddy 1 1-2 3; Francois O’Brien 2 0-0 4; Morgan Smith 0 0-0 0; Lindsay Morgner 0 0-0 0; Leah Atkins 5 2-2 12; Sarah Augustine 1 0-2 2; Sarah Eckerson 8 10-11 26. Totals: 23 17-23 65.
GREENWICH ACADEMY 26 16 — 42
SACRED HEART 30 35 — 65
3-pointers: GA – Sileo 4, Generuex; SH — Frederick.