TRUMBULL — For 20 games over the past two months, the Ridgefield girls basketball team worked on developing an identity, with new players, a new coach and a new system.
The past five days served as an end-of-semester exam for the Tigers, and boy did they ace it.
In a grinding game with repeated swings and momentum changes, Ridgefield completed the sizable of taking down the top three seeds, finishing with a 50-46 double overtime win tonight over No. 1 Staples for its first FCIAC title since 2015 and fourth over all.
“They’ve done a really job of adopting the mentality of team first and I think that’s not an easy thing to adopt,” said Rob Coloney, the Tigers’ first-year coach, who previously won a state championship as an assistant at Wilton. “It’s just who’s in there, who’s going to do the best for us, who’s going to make a play. There were about 20 plays in this game where I looked back at the bench and … I’m never at a loss for words but I’m at a loss for words tonight.”
The seventh-seeded Tigers (17-6), who first took down No. 2 Danbury in the quarterfinals and third-seeded Trumbull in the semifinals, led for all but 3:24 tonight, with their biggest lead being seven points. They were up five after one of two free throws by game MVP Kate Wagner (16 points) with 34 seconds left in double overtime and held on.
Both teams struggled offensively, missing open shots on the perimeter and putbacks in the paint, but came through with big plays when needed.
Abby Carter hit a 3-point shot to give the Wreckers (20-3) a 37-34 lead with 1:42 remaining in regulation. Katie Flynn (12 points), who like her team played her best ball of the season over the past week, calmly hit a game-tying 3-point shot from the wing with 16 seconds left to force overtime.
In the first overtime, the Wreckers’ Marley Lopez-Paul made two free throws with 2.8 seconds left to tie the game at 41-41 and force a second overtime.
Cali Stietzel, who scored 11 of her 14 points after halftime, hit a 3-point shot to give the Tigers a 46-43 lead with 2:35 left, then turned a steal into a layup for a 49-45 advantage with a minute left.
“I think the thing that I’m most impressed with is their poise, that they didn’t quit on each other, on me and it’s all them,” Coloney said. “They battled. I mean down three with 20 seconds left to the No. 2 team in the state and Katie Flynn is like, alright, I’ll just hit that shot. We go to overtime, Marley hits those two amazing free throws and we don’t panic. That’s just a microcosm of our season. Looking at adversity and getting over it. Every girl played a big role in this.”
If there was a defining play for the Tigers, it came less than two minutes into the fourth quarter. The Wreckers had rallied from a 28-21 deficit, getting a 3-point shot by Marley-Lopez at the third quarter buzzer and taking their first lead of the night, 32-30, on Marisa Shorrock’s 3-pointer with 7:35 left in regulation.
After a pair of missed shots, Staples’ Arianna Gerig drove down the lane. Flynn got in her path and drew a charge. Stietzel then made a layup to tie the game but more importantly deflate the Wreckers’ first real flurry.
“That’s like our team in a nutshell,” Flynn said. “We want it so bad we’re willing to do anything. We’ll risk our bodies because we want it just so so bad. We just played amazing defense. We knew we had to stop Arianna because she’s great and we had to play lockdown defense on her and get her in foul trouble and that’s exactly what we did.”
Gerig, the Wreckers’ top player, was held to just three field goals and 11 points before fouling out late in regulation. Carter also scored 11 while Lopez-Paul added 10.
“It’s hard to explain,” Staples coach Paco Fabian said. “I’ll give credit to Ridgefield’s defense and Coach Rob did a fantastic job coaching his team through the tournament. They play hard, they played harder than anybody. For us to go double overtime and only score 46 points is not Staples basketball. We never played like that all year offensively.”
In the end the Tigers found the ingredients to carry them through the tournament via the most difficult path possible.
“Our teamwork, our perseverance, our toughness, that’s what carried us through,” Wagner said. “There are more skilled teams, there are better playing teams but we just held out in the end. We knew we could do it.”