WESTPORT — After Greenwich earned a berth in the FCIAC girls basketball tournament semifinals for the first time in several seasons with a victory against Norwalk, it was Staples’ turn to advance to a game they haven’t appeared in for quite a while.And like the Cardinals, the Wreckers came through with a clutch performance on a significant stage on Saturday.
The top-seeded Wreckers and fifth-seeded Cardinals eached moved on to the semifinals of the FCIAC Tournament with impressive quarterfinal-round victories.
Staples (19-2) and Greenwich (15-6) will meet for the second time this season on Tuesday, with the stakes being much higher this time around, as they will face each other in the conference semifinals.
Fifth-seeded Greenwich eliminated fourth-seeded Norwalk, the defending FCIAC champion, while Staples topped eighth-seeded Ludlowe in the quarterfinals.
“I have been coaching here at Staples for seven years and we haven’t won an FCIAC game since I’ve been here before tonight,” Wreckers coach Paco Fabian said. “It’s been at least 10 years since the team has been to the semifinals and the last time Staples won the FCIAC Tournament was 1995.”
Prior to Staples’ 64-48 win over Ludlowe in the quarterfinals, Greenwich defeated Norwalk, 54-41.
The first half of the Cardinals and Bears matchup featured numerous lead changes, but the second half belonged to Greenwich.
On the strength of 22 points from freshman forward Mackenzie Nelson, a young, GHS posted its biggest victory of the season to date.
Included in Nelson’s 22-point effort were an array of clutch foul shots down the stretch. She also excelled at pushing the ball up the court in transition and running the offense at crucial moments of the game.
“Everyone contributed to this win,” Nelson said. “Our bench did a great job and we were making 3-pointers, converting layups and making the extra pass.”
Freshman guard Ava Sollenne added 11 points, while senior forward Ciara Munnelly had six points for Greenwich, which limited the Bears to just 13 second-half points.
“It feels great to beat the defending FCIAC champion,” Munnelly said. “We tried to stay calm in the second half and we played really good defense, which contributed to the win.”
Junior guard Jakara Murray-Leach posted 10 points, as did teammate Belinda Hunte, a senior guard, for Norwalk (16-5). The Bears went undefeated on their way to winning the FCIAC and Class LL titles last winter.
“We did this to ourselves,” Norwalk coach Evan Kelly said. “We have five keys to make sure we stay right and tight and we failed at all five of them, tonight. Rebounding, boxing out, never getting out toughed on the court, making free throws, making layups, and having a good mental game. We didn’t do any of those things. That is something we preach on the daily.”
The Cardinals trailed 28-25 at halftime, but immediately took control in the third quarter against the Bears’ 2-3 zone defense.
Nelson made a 3-pointer 30 seconds into the third quarter to tie the score at 28-28. A layup by senior forward Julia Conforti, followed by a Nelson layup, put the Cards ahead, 32-28, with 5:40 to go in the third quarter.
The lead grew to 36-28, on Munnelly’s putback at the 3:15 mark of the third quarter. Norwalk’s first basket of the second half came from Murray-Leach with 2:50 remaining.
“At halftime, we talked about the fact that good things were happening when we were pushing in transition and being aggressive on offense,” GHS coach Chrys Hernandez said. “We forced some turnovers, but we weren’t finishing in the first half. Then, we did a really good job of finishing in the second half.”
Sollenne swished a floater in the lane and Nelson made eight free throws to help Greenwich build upon its fourth-quarter lead and seal the win.
“We knew Norwalk was a strong team and that they were going to come out strong and they did,” Sollenne said. “We did a good job of fighting back and we kept our intensity up.”
Sophomore forward Kelly Martyanov and sophomore guard Kristin Riggs scored four points apiece, while senior guard Jordan Moses had five points in the winning effort. Sophomore guard Lamia Ashley totaled six points for Norwalk, which held a 14-13 lead after the first quarter and a 28-25 halftime advantage.
In the nightcap, Staples led Ludlowe, 21-15, following the first quarter and 37-22 at halftime. Senior forward Arianna Gerig scored a team-high 14 points, while Marley Lopez-Paul added 11 points for the victors.
“Making it to the semifinals is really exciting,” Gerig said. “I have never gone past the first round my four years and it’s such a big accomplish to play on such a big stage. I’m excited to get there with such a great team with great girls.”
Gerig scored 14 points over the first three quarters, then got a big banged up and sat out the fourth quarter.
“I think she’ll be okay, we won’t know until the next couple of days,” Fabian said of Gerig. “Arianna had an awesome game, she played great and is the leader of our team.”
Ludlowe (12-9), which dropped a 57-42 decision to Staples during the regular season, received a game-high 19 points from junior forward Anna Paulmann. Freshman forward Caitlin Finnegan had seven points for the Falcons.
“I couldn’t be more proud of our team,” Ludlowe coach Sara Kinsley said. “We fought until the last buzzer and it didn’t matter when Staples made their runs, we kept fighting to stay in it. Our mental toughness carried us through.”
Ahead by six points after the opening quarter, the home team expanded their lead to 31-19 on a putback by Gerig, a layup from senior guard Abigail Carter and a basket off an offensive rebound by junior forward Marley Lopez-Paul.
“I like how we came out in the first half,” Lopez-Paul said. “We came out strong, we came out with energy and it was a lot of fun.”
In the second half, a 3-pointer by Carter (9 points) put the Falcons in a 45-23 hole at the 5:54 mark.
“We had to match their intensity and energy and keep going strong,” Carter said. “We kept rebounding, shooting our shots and executed.”
Guard Nicole Holmes had eight points, while Marissa Shorrock and Alva Nordin contributed six apiece in the win. Juliet Bucher and Ira Boci added five points for the Falcons.
“Our team is excited for states and we are going to make a run,” Kinsley said. “Fairfield Ludlowe has a very bright future.”
— Greenwich Time Spts (@GreenwichSports) February 23, 2020
PLAYER OF THE GREENWICH-NORWALK GAME
Nelson shot 8 for 8 from the foul line in the fourth quarter and was tough to stop in transiton throughout.
“We want to do this for our seniors, we want to win it all for them,” Nelson said.
Said Hernandez: “Our freshmen and sophomores showed the poise of juniors and seniors.”
PLAYER OF THE LUDLOWE-STAPLES GAME
Gerig once again made key plays on both ends of the floor for the Wreckers, enabling them to execute efficiently.
GREENWICH UP NEXT
Staples beat Greenwich 60-44 in January, but Fabian knows the Cardinals have improved since then.
“They have some awesome players and we have to play our best to beat Greenwich,” Fabian said. “It is going to be an awesome semifinal game.”
“We haven’t made it to the semifinals of the FCIAC Tournament in a very long time and to be the first seed for the first time in forever, is amazing,” Lopez-Paul said.
Said Gerig: “Every girl on our team is hungry to compete and win, I have never been on a team that has such great energy.”