By MICHAEL LETENDRE
NEWTON – The St. Paul Catholic girls basketball team trailed early and just couldn’t get over the hump in its Class S seminal tournament game against Trinity Catholic on Friday, March 8 from Newtown High School.
The third-ranked Falcons were down by double-figures to No. 7 Trinity Catholic 51-35 with 1:59 remaining but made a huge comeback to make it a two-possession game
St. Paul Catholic cobbled together a 10-0 run to cut the deficit to six with 47.9 seconds to play.
But at 51-45, the Crusaders made late free throws down the stretch to capture the victory by a 56-45 final – ending the Falcons excellent season at 24-3.
“We didn’t play our good game,” said St. Paul Catholic coach Joe Mone. “When you get this far, if you don’t play your ‘A’ game, you’re going home. You don’t get this far and you’re playing a bad team. That’s a really good team. We knew how good they were.”
“We just didn’t do what we were supposed to do.”
St. Paul Catholic shot just 2-of-14 from the field over the first quarter and never recovered on the scoreboard.
Trinity Catholic strung together 14 straight first quarter points to put the Falcons in a hole they were trying to climb out of for the rest of the evening.
“The first quarter was erratic and crazy,” said Mone. “We got caught up in the emotion, I think, and the hype. Once we settled down, we never caught up. We never did what we were supposed to so once you get in a hole with a team like that, now you’ve got to fight back.”
St. Paul Catholic’s Janessa Gonzalez overcame a 0-for-10 start from the field to score 16 points for the Falcons while Jade Udoh pushed in nine points and nabbed eight rebounds.
Olivia Heslin played extremely well for the Falcons, scoring eight points and nabbing a team-high 13 rebounds – all the while guarding the Crusaders’ top player in Iyanna Lops (22 points).
“She did well,” said Mone of Heslin. “Honestly, I know the big kid [Lops] had a lot of points [but Heslin] did a decent job on the big kid, shadowing her. The kid’s good. I told [my players] ‘You’re not stopping that kid.’ That kid’s scoring 20 points…but she had to earn them and work for them. And I thought Heslin did a good job.”
“She rebounded. She had a couple good hoops like put-backs or whatever.”
Mone and his staff noticed Heslin’s head was always up and continually encouraged her teammates to stay in the game.
Emma Cretella added seven points; Catherine Ciampi dropped in a three; while Morgan Kolb chipped in a point plus a few rebounds.
Kailyn Bielecki and Sophia Gerst also saw time on the floor for the Falcons.
Trinity Catholic Caitlyn Scott played well throughout the game with a game-high 23 points while Kyah Nowlin added six points.
The trio of Lops, Scott, and Nowlin all played well defensively as Udoh and Gonzalez were consistently double-teamed and harassed on the floor.
The Crusaders canned its first 15 free throws, helping to establish and push out the lead for the seventh-seeded squad.
But to start, St. Paul Catholic held an early edge in the game.
Cretella canned two field goals over the first 1:35 of the showdown, including a three, as the Falcons led 5-2 out the gate.
But missed shots, turnovers and Trinity Catholic shredding the St. Paul Catholic’s full-court press led to a blistering 16-0 run and with 7:42 remaining in the first half, the Crusaders were cruising at 18-5.
“We got a little carried away in the beginning, trying to do too much individually instead of running our sets like we were supposed to,” said Mone. “It happens. They’re 14 to 17 year old kids.”
Gonzalez canned two free throws to stop the run and when Udoh pumped in five straight points – including a hoop off a sweet up-and-under move – the Falcons trimmed the deficit to 23-14 with 3:33 left in the second period.
Lops later hit two free throws with 3:06 to play in the second but the Falcons offense did not allow the opponents to score again in the stanza.
A Gonzalez steal led to a free throw and when Heslin ended the scoring with a jumper, St. Paul Catholic was hanging around – trailing by just a 25-17 push.
“The press didn’t work so we went off it,” said Mone. “We got into a little bit of foul trouble. And I told them at halftime we might have played the worst half of basketball I’ve seen all year and you’re [only] down eight. We’re lucky to be down eight and we’ve just got to come out and have a stop defensively and maybe put together a little string to put it back to where we want it and it’s a whole new game.”
But that St. Paul Catholic hoop didn’t come soon enough in the third quarter and when Scott hit a three with 6:20 to go in the stanza, the Falcons trailed 32-17 for its biggest deficit of the evening to that point.
And the game went back and forth from there but when Gonzalez ended the third quarter with a conventional three-point play and a jumper, Trinity’s edge was chopped to 36-26 with one period remaining to play.
The Crusaders then went into stall mode to open the fourth and the Falcons were limited to just two points over the first 4:51 of the frame.
Scott hit another three and Kiera Fenske and Emma Garner hit four-of-six combined free throws to pull Trinity Catholic ahead 46-30 with 3:09 remaining.
And with 1:59 to play, it was still a 16-point game with Trinity Catholic in front 51-35 as time running out.
But missed free throws and turnovers plagued the Crusaders over the next seventy seconds and the Falcons made it a game.
Gonzalez hit two foul shots, Ciampi canned her three; Heslin put in an offensive rebound for two; and Gonzalez dropped in her only three-pointer of the game to key a 10-0 burst.
And with 47.9 seconds to go, Trinity Catholic’s edge was down to 51-45 and the squad was feeling more than a little pressure.
“We fought back,” said Mone. “We had some runs where I thought maybe we’d get back it in but we just didn’t play well. This time of year, there’s no secrets. They are all good teams.”
That would be as close as the Falcons got to the lead as Scott made 5-of-6 charity shots to ice the event and St. Paul Catholic did not score again – propelling Trinity Catholic to the Class S championship title game the following weekend with the 56-45 win.
“I think it’s hard for them knowing that they didn’t play well and had to go home,” said Mone of his team. “When you play your game and you get beat and go home, then you go home and you’re kind of like ‘We gave everything we had.’ [St. Paul Catholic showed] heart and effort absolutely, no give up, but we just really didn’t play a good game.”
The loss stings for St. Paul Catholic but the Iron Division champs and the winners of the Naugatuck Valley Tournament had a great season before things were said and done, leading to a 24-win campaign. They should have enough firepower to make a run in 2019-20.
“The main thing I told them was ‘Cry a little.’ That’s normal, everybody does it,” said Mone. “But you’ve got to walk out here and see your family and friends and you’ve got to hold your head up high. You had 24 wins this year, you’ve won some championships. What’s there to be disgusted about?”
To comment on this story or to contact staff writer Michael Letendre, email him at MLetendre@BristolObserver.com.