Commentary: Danbury’s Experience Leads To 3-Peat Date With Wilton

Stamford's Tiana England goes up for a layup as Danbury's Rebecca Gartner defends during Tuesday night's game. (Photo: Mark Conrad)

Stamford’s Tiana England goes up for a layup as Danbury’s Rebecca Gartner defends during Tuesday night’s game. (Photo: Mark Conrad)

FAIRFIELD — If you are restless and reading this at, say, 2 or 3 in the morning, you are probably not alone in your insomnia. Odds are there are several members of the Stamford High School girls basketball team tossing and turning, replaying rimmed-out shots and errant passes over and over like a DVR gone mad.

The Black Knights will remember Tuesday as the upset that got away, as missed chances against a seasoned champion were a contributing factor to a 45-33 loss against top-seeded Danbury in the semifinal round of the FCIAC Tournament.

Stamford (17-5), the No. 4 seed, played with energy on defense. That intensity was matched at the other end of the court.

If only the execution was equalled.

“Stamford is awesome,” Danbury coach Jackie DiNardo said after her team won for the 20th straight time and moved a win away from becoming the first three-time league champion since Trinity Catholic in 2006-08.

“They’re athletic, have a great guard and Kelsey is so strong,” said DiNardo, referring to Stamford playmaker Tiana England and center Kelsey Santagata. “They came back and got back in the game, and I didn’t expect anything less.”

Danbury (21-1) jumped out to a 10-0 lead as the Black Knights missed their first nine shots. But they refused to go away, and before you knew it had a 16-15 lead late in the first half. Better yet, Rachel Gartner, the Hatters’ spectacular Boston College-bound point guard, had just picked up her third foul.

“I know, I only play five people,” DiNardo said sarcastically before the inevitable question after bucking convention and leaving Gartner in the game. “I have something that works. I have to have her on the court. She’s so smart. It’s our strategy.”

It is impossible to argue with the results. Though the Hatters were forced by Stamford to get into the mud and scrap it out, Gartner finished with 20 points. Her twin sister, Rebecca, had several eye-opening assists, sending passes over an active zone inside to Allie Smith, who finished with 14 points.

“Don’t jump, stay on the ground,” Rachel Gartner said of her mindset late in the half. “It is hard. But I have people yelling to remind me,”

Danbury's Rachel Gartner dribbles up court against Stamford's Camry Evans. (Photo: Mark Conrad)

Danbury’s Rachel Gartner dribbles up court against Stamford’s Camry Evans. (Photo: Mark Conrad)

She was referring both to DiNardo and her sister.

Rachel Gartner scored 7 points for her team late in the third quarter, the last a 3-pointer that put Danbury up 28-21. But England’s 3-point shot made it a 4-point game heading to the final period.

Rachel Gartner opened it with another 3-point shot, Smith scored on a reverse, and though Stamford stayed close until the final two minutes, it never put the Hatters in a situation where they needed to make a basket or stop on a possession.


“They have a great 1-3-1,” Gartner said. “We started moving better in the second half.”

Now the Black Knights will have a week to regroup for the state tournament, while Danbury goes back to work Thursday night, attempting the quinella of another championship and avenging its lone loss of the season when it faces Wilton.

Danbury's Shannon Geary goes up for a shot as Stamford's Brianna Gordon (14) and Tiana England defend. (Photo: Mark Conrad)

Danbury’s Shannon Geary goes up for a shot as Stamford’s Brianna Gordon (14) and Tiana England defend. (Photo: Mark Conrad)

“It would be huge,” Rachel Gartner said of the prospect of winning one last league title. “To come back to the high school, look up at the banners and smile.”

Wilton 60, Greenwich 44

Erin Cunningham is way too talented to be left untended on the court. Yet if her greatest gift is a sure outside shot, her second may be blending in and getting lost in a crowd.

“I just try to move around and do the best I can to get open,” Cunningham said after scoring a game-high 22 points for No. 2 Wilton (19-3) in its 60-44 win over Greenwich in Tuesday’s opening semifinal. “I know I play the post, but I like to get out there as much as I can. I try to help out.”

If one possession can symbolize Cunningham’s unusual now-you-see-her, now-you-don’t act, it came on the final one of the first half. She had just hit a 3-point shot to put the Warriors up, 28-19.

Wilton patiently worked the ball around for the last shot, and Cunningham roamed the perimeter from one side to the next, until the Cardinals eventually lost her. Cunningham’s 3-point shot at the buzzer made it a 12-point game.

Greenwich (16-6), enjoying a revival under third-year coach Chrys Hernandez, rallied behind Jamie Kockenmeister, who scored 10 of her 21 points in the third quarter to narrow the deficit to 41-37.

Wilton answered with a 15-0 knockout-punch run, with Cunningham hitting another 3 and scoring on a putback, while center Erica Meyer (13 points) converted a pair of inside baskets on consecutive possessions.

“You get ahead and you get excited and you start to get complacent,” Wilton coach Jaclyn Porco said. “This team has improved, it doesn’t stay as complacent as long. Each possession we had a plan ready.”

While Danbury will be looking to continue a run, the Warriors will attempt to end a drought. Their last championship was in 1989, led by a point guard better known for her skills without touching a ball, Kristine Lilly.

“This feels awesome,” Cunningham, a junior, said. “After no getting past the semifinals the first two years. We worked so hard to get here so it is a big accomplishment.”