WESTPORT — It was not unreasonable to expect the Staples girls basketball team, after last winter winning the FCIAC regular season title, losing in the conference final and then reaching the Class LL semifinals prior to the pandemic shutdown, to take a step back this year.
The Wreckers lost several senior starters, most notably Arianna Gerig, who almost certainly would have been the league Player of the Year if such an award existed.
Yet here Staples sits today 5-0, one of three remaining unbeaten teams following the biggest win of the season, yesterday’s 61-57 overtime win at Fairfield Ludlowe. The Wreckers lost a six-point lead in the final minute of regulation and yielded the tying basket at the buzzer on a beautiful feed converted by the Falcons’ Madison Roman.
Ludlowe went ahead at the start of overtime before the Wreckers settled down and took control of the game.
At about the same time, not far away, the schools’ boys teams were finishing up in Westport. The Wreckers found a way to overcome poor perimeter shooting for a 58-48 victory to also remain undefeated.
The FCIAC basketball orbit currently revolves around Ridgefield, home to the two defending league champions. The boys team is moving into prohibitive favorite territory, while the girls team is part of a pack with solid title hopes.
If Ridgefield is the current conference leading basketball town, for now Westport is second, as both programs rebound off of one of the best simultaneous strong seasons in school history.
The win by the Staples girls yesterday — Ludlowe was a popular preseason favorite and, despite a loss to Trumbull last week on a blocked game-tying shot at the buzzer, remains very much in the mix — was the example of how successful programs reach sustainability.
Nicole Holmes led the way for the Wreckers in overtime. Holmes, Marley Lopez-Paul and Alva Nordin were the most experienced returning players, and their contributions have remained critical.
The missing points Gerig took with her are being made up by two players who have been revelations, Sydelle Bernstein and Lexie Moskovit. Bernstein hit four 3-point shots and scored 14 points against Ludlowe. She has become one of the main offensive threats, in part because of the minutes she has earned. Where Bernstein once looked like she hoped to make open looks, she now wears the assuredness of a player that expects the ball to go through the net.
“I’m just kind of playing my own game,” Bernstein said. “An important part of my playing has been being able to have confidence. In years past I had really no confidence at all, but my teammates have really helped me. I’m not trying to think about points. It’s also the passes I’m getting. We work as a team. We’re playing team basketball. In years past we’ve always had this one dominant player. This year sharing the ball is one of the things that we’ve been doing well.”
Moskovit has also taken her game to the next level. She scored 9 points again Ludlowe and also continues to be one of the Wreckers’ better ball handlers.
“They’ve stepped up,” Staples coach Paco Fabian said. “Sydelle has had at least two 3-pointers in every game. Lexie has been scoring great. You were really hoping they would step up this year. Last year Nicole, Marley and Alva got a lot of minutes. This year Lexie and Sydelle have stepped in to get a lot of good minutes.”
Fabian smiled when he saw last night’s box score. Nordin and Lopez-Paul each finished with 11 points. Holmes ended up with 9.
That balanced scoring is a good recipe for success, especially when any of the five players can be the leading scorer on a given night.
“Last year you were getting 20 from Arianna and hoping one or two other girls got 10,” Fabian said. “This year we’re hoping three to four girls get 10, minimum.”
Staples’ boys team has relied on superior talent for its quick start. With the inability to make outside shots and a number of misses from in close, yesterday was the kind of game the Wreckers would probably have lost in the past. The void was filled with defense and offensive rebounding.
They finished with the sixth-best record in league play a year ago and seemed poised for a strong state playoff run prior to the shutdown.
The Wreckers’ first big test comes next Tuesday against New Canaan. They close the regular season now against Ridgefield, a game that was postponed from Monday.
The girls team has a brutal schedule. Next up is Trumbull tomorrow. The Eagles have been hot since opening with a loss to Ridgefield. Staples closes against St. Joseph and Ridgefield, meaning it will have played all the other top contenders before the playoffs.
So far the Wreckers have been answering any skeptics. Bernstein says that has been a constant motivator, including for last night’s game.
“Tonight felt like our chance to prove to everyone the type of team we are because people do continue to doubt us,” Bernstein said yesterday. “A lot of people told us they didn’t think we’d win tonight. I think we showed the FCIAC what we’re all about this year, that we’re still the strong team that we were in years past.”