STAMFORD — When Chrys Hernandez interviewed for the Greenwich High School girls basketball job three years ago, a number of colleagues gave her a one-word piece of advice.
“Yeah, they told me not to get my hopes up too high,” Hernandez recalled. “We use that as motivation every day.”
Hernandez was talking moments after the Cardinals had just defeated Westhill, 55-51, Saturday afternoon in the quarterfinal round of the FCIAC Tournament. While records are incomplete, it is believed to be the program’s first league playoff win in 22 years.
“I’m so proud of them,” said Hernandez, her voice hoarse after 32 minutes of shouting instructions at a young team in the mid-stages of ascension. “They’ve given me everything I’ve asked.”
Defending champion Danbury, Stamford and Wilton also advanced to Tuesday’s semifinals.
Greenwich (16-5) came in as the sixth seed and, despite the most balanced playoff field in recent memory, according to several coaches “the one team no one wanted to see.”
The Cardinals took control in the second quarter, using a 10-2 spurt to take a 35-24 halftime lead.
They then had to fend off several runs from the Vikings, the first when 3-point shots by Edona Thaqi and Steph Roones narrowed the deficit to 38-33.
Leigh Galletta went coast-to-coast on consecutive possessions as Greenwich scored 9 unanswered points to get the lead up to 14 points.
Westhill got as close as 4 points on a basket by Tyler Evans with 2:20 left that made the score 50-46. Greenwich made 6 of 7 foul shots the rest of the way to advance.
“Asked the difference between the state of her team now and when she first took over, Hernandez said, “Commitment and desire to win. We really needed to change the mentality from a club team to one that could compete with the best.”
The key to the Cardinals was evident in the box score. Five players had between 8 and 12 points, led by Jamie Kockenmeister with 12. Caroline Beneville and Galletta added 10 apiece, while Abbie Wolf finished with 9 and Alexa Moses with 8.
“That’s exactly it, we have balance,” said Hernandez, a star player at Brien McMahon, class of 2001. “Teams scout our team, but you can stop just one player. We have multiple scoring threats.”
Rebecca DeCarlo, one of Greenwich’s few seniors, said that each player offers a motivational quote on a daily basis.
“The one that has stuck with me is about a fist,” DeCarlo said. “It takes five fingers to make a fist. Everyone has to do a little bit of everything.”
DeCarlo is one of the few players who was part of the team prior to Hernandez’s arrival.
“I played mostly freshman and got moved up to junior varsity,” DeCarlo said. “It it entirely different. Before it was like everyone wasn’t quite there. The new coach came in and it was an entirely different aspect. Everything has changed. She broke it down to the basics. Boxing out, defense. The offense will come along, but you really have to work on defense. You never walk on the court. Everything is a jog or sprint.”
Now, behind a coach who knows what it takes to be successful, the Cardinals have sprinted to the semifinal round.
“We want to make our mark on this program,” DeCarlo said. “It has taken three years, but we feel good. We’ve done something now.”
Tyler Evans finished with 16 points, Thaqi 14 and Roones 11 for Westhill (16-5).
Wilton 48, Fairfield Ludlowe 29
Form held true in the second game of Saturday’s afternoon session, as No. 2-seeded Wilton (18-3) jumped out to an early lead and easily avenged a loss earlier in the week to Fairfield Ludlowe, 46-25.
Erin Cunningham set the tone for the Warriors, hitting three early 3-point shots. She finished with a game high 15-points and 6 rebounds.
“I like to shoot,” Cunningham said with a smile. “I like to help the team and set the table. If I’m making 3s it opens things up for everyone else.”
Erica Meyer added 11 points and Haley English had 8 points and 5 assists for Wilton.
Of her team’s quick start, Warriors coach Jaclyn Porco said, “That was the plan. We’ve had way too many games that have come down to the last quarter, the last few possessions of a game. The mentality was to get them early.”
Cunningham said besides trying to win the school’s first league title since 1989, Wilton was trying to emerge from an end-of-season funk, with two losses in its last three games.
“I think we needed a little check,” Cunningham said. “We were a little happy and gotten a little too complacent. I think we lost focus a little bit.”
Stamford 57, Fairfield Warde 36
Tiana England, the dazzling point guard for Stamford, is accustomed to seeing opposing defenses designed to stop her. Having two players assigned to her, as Fairfield Warde coach Dave Danko attempted, was a new one.
“I saw it once in AAU but not like this,” England said after leading the fourth-seeded Black Knights to a 57-36 win. “It took me a few moments to get me through it.”
The strategy had some short-term effect. After an 8-0 run, Stamford (17-4) was held scoreless for the last 5 1/2 minutes of the opening quarter as the Mustangs (15-6) scored 7 straight points of their own for a 12-8 lead.
“I think we got frustrated,” said Diane Burns, the Black Knights’ first-year coach.
Stopping England for a period is one thing. A whole game?
Leading by 6 points, Stamford opened the second-half with a 15-4 run that broke open the game. England had 4 free throws during the run but set her teammates up for easy baskets.
England finished with 18 points, while Kelsey Santagata, the center who did an excellent job helping to bring the ball up court, added 12 points. Camry Evans had 10.
“Tiana’s an excellent passer and the girls know that,” Burns said. “They know when she drives the lane to put their hands up because she will definitely throw it.”
England said it took a little time to adapt to the defense, but that the Black Knights won’t have that luxury Tuesday night against two-time defending champion and top-seed Danbury.
“I knew my teammates could bring up the ball and help out, but when I got the ball I knew I was going right by them,” England said. “We needed time to get back into our game. We have to learn to play our game as soon as it starts.”
Danbury 48, Trumbull 28
Rachel Gartner has heard all the talk about how this has been a season of unparalleled parity and perhaps the deepest field ever for the girls tournament.
Gartner’s message to the rest of the league: keep the chatter coming.
“It motivates us in the sense that I want people to give us the respect because I feel we deserve it,” Gartner said after scoring a game-high 16 points in the top-seeded Hatters’ 48-28 win over Trumbull.
In a statistic emblematic of this season, No. 8 Trumbull came in with a 3-4 mark against the rest of the playoff field.
The Hatters’ attempt at a three-peat and their 20-game winning streak seemed to become secondary storylines.
“Me and Rebecca were talking about it,” said Gartner, referring to her twin sister, who finished with 7 points. “It makes us want to go out and play harder.”
Those plotting the path to an upset pointed to the chances the Eagles had of using defensive pressure to keep the score in the 40s.
But it was the Hatters who flourished defensively. They scored the first 11 points, holding Trumbull scoreless until there were 46 seconds left in the opening quarter.
Trumbull’s second field goal didn’t come until there were 3 1/2 minutes left in the half.
Danbury had a 23-10 lead at the break and opened the third quarter with a 10-2 run.
“We played our typical 2-3 and just talked the whole game,” Gartner said. “We talked about changing it up but we just played our type of game and it worked.”