WESTPORT — The Greenwich girls basketball team spent the final minutes of tonight’s FCIAC quarterfinal game trying to hold off the defending champion with two freshmen and two sophomores on the court.
It spoke volumes of the Cardinals’ future. It spoke just as much of their present.
With a pair of freshmen combining for the final 14 points, including a pull-away 8-0 run, the fifth-seeded Cardinals defeated No. 4 Norwalk, 54-41, at Staples.
“They’ve shown the poise and the discipline of juniors and seniors,” Greenwich coach Chrys Hernandez said. “They know what it is to be in a big-game situation and they’re basketball players. They want those big moments and they showed up today in a big way. I’ve very proud of them.”
Mackenzie Nelson, the 9th grader who has been one of the biggest storylines of the girls basketball season, finished with a game-high 22 points. She was 8 for 8 from the foul line in the final quarter.
“It was a close game but when you come down to it you make your shots,” Nelson said matter-of-factly. “We were able to do everything. We hit our jump shots, midrange and 3-pointers. We also were making our layups and getting offensive and defensive rebounds. Both of our posts had big games, which is why we came out on top.”
Ava Sollenne, another freshman, scored six of her 11 points in the final period. Sollenne made a reverse and two foul shots down the stretch.
The Cardinals improved to 15-6. The Young Guns will be put to the test on Tuesday with a semifinal game against No. 1 Staples. Looking completely unburdened by being cast as the favorite, the Wreckers built a big lead early behind their defense and transition game and rolled past No. 8 Fairfield Ludlowe, 64-48.
Norwalk (16-5), which went undefeated last season, jumped out to a quick 11-4 lead. Greenwich chipped away, with a tight end of the first half concluding with the Bears in a 28-25 lead.
Greenwich started the second half with 11 unanswered points. Four different players scored, with Nelson hitting a 3-pointer and a reverse.
“Halftime we talked about offensively good things were happening when we were pushing in transition and being aggressive,” Hernandez said. “That was the focus coming back in, that we’re not walking the ball up the court, especially when we have people up the floor, we have to take advantage of the numbers. We were forcing turnovers and getting steals but then we weren’t converting in the first half. That was the focus after halftime, to finish, and they did a really good job of that.”
The Bears made a fourth-quarter run and got within 42-39 on Carsyn Langhorn’s layup with 4:15 remaining. Nelson was fouled and made both shots, setting the pattern for the end of the game.
“It was making our jump shots and making the extra pass,” Nelson said. “In the first half most of us took the shot when it really wasn’t open. In the third and the fourth quarter we made that extra pass, which led to baskets.”
Jakara Murray-Leach and Belinda Hunte, two holdovers from last year’s title teams, led Norwalk with 10 points apiece.
Hernandez smiled when asked about the apparent youth on the court at the end of the game.
“I think we’ve been through enough games this season when you get in that position you focus on the end of the game, and they did an excellent job with that part of the game,” Hernandez said.
Staples (19-2) had little trouble against a Ludlowe team that parlayed a strong second half of the season into the final playoff berth. They used a run at the end of the first half to build a 37-22 lead and extended it early in the third quarter.
“We talk about how we have a lot of girls playing,” Staples coach Paco Fabian said. “We try to play fullcourt the whole game and rotate the girls in. And our defensive pressure was great tonight, we had a lot of energy. We haven’t been to the semifinals of the FCIACs in some time so we are thrilled with what happened tonight.”
The mood was tempered when the Wreckers’ best player, Arianna Gerig, left the game in the third quarter with a knee injury. Gerig missed last season with a torn ACL. Her status for next week is uncertain.
Before leaving, Gerig scored 16 points. She hit a pair of 3-point shots and dominated close to the basket.
“Ari was great,” Fabian said. “We’re so lucky to have her. Hopefully she continues and we keep this run going.”
Marley Lopez-Paul, Marisa Shorrock and Abby Carter each scored 9 points for Staples, while Nicole Holmes and Alva Nordin finished with 8 each.
“We knew going into this game that Ludlowe was going to be very aggressive,” Shorrock said. “We just needed to play our own game and keep control of the ball. Fast breaks are a big part of our game.
The Falcons (12-9) had some strong stretches but the deficit was too deep to make much of a dent. Anna Paulmann led Ludlowe with 19 points.
Tuesday’s semifinals should have two contrasting games. Staples and Greenwich will feature teams that excel playing up-tempo.
“Greenwich was phenomenal against Norwalk,” Fabian said. “They have some great players. We were really impressed by them.”