UNCASVILLE — On a day when they were unable to gain any traction, following a step forward with two steps back, the members of the Norwalk girls basketball team agreed their confidence never wavered at the start of the fourth quarter of today’s Class LL championship game against New London.
Down by 11 points, the Bears had already rallied from a similar deficit to win at New London during the regular season.
And there was too much resolve to let a perfect season become tarnished.
“We just had to get our energy up and play better defense,” the Bears’ Ashley Wilson said.
Norwalk’s furious pressure forced nine turnovers in the final quarter and put it in position to have the ball on the final possession with the score tied. Anaijah Morgan, called on to play more minutes at point guard than at any point this season, took a return pass from Sanaa Boyd, penetrated and got a bounce pass inside to Naeva Rene, who scored as time was running out to give the Bears a dramatic 55-53 win.
“As soon as I got the ball I had to jump as high as I could to get it in the basket and win the championship,” Rene said.
The Bears completed a perfect 28-0 season, their first since their previous final appearance, in 2000. Coach Ricky Fuller was an assistant to Fred English on that team.
“I remember it, I remember it well,” Fuller said. “It is the greatest feeling in the world.”
There was no foreshadowing the finish. The Bears made just three of 15 shots in the third quarter and trailed, 47-36.
“Both New London games we played from behind so I wasn’t too out of my comfort zone,” Fuller said. “We’ve been here before. I wasn’t overwhelmed thinking we can’t come back. They’re a very good team but I knew if we hung in there we were going to make plays.”
Five different Norwalk players scored in the final period, but Fuller, appropriately at Mohegan Sun, gambled and used Morgan to run the offense. Morgan paid early dividends with four steals.
The Whalers, who jumped out to a 12-0 lead at the start, were held to just four points for the first 6:33 of the last quarter. Ashley Wilson, in her final game, gave the Bears their first tie, 51-51, since the opening tip when she hit a long 3 with 1:43 left, doing a hop for emphasis.
Xariya Melendez put the Whalers (22-3) back in front with 1:27 left, but Wilson tied it again on a pair of free throws with 45 seconds left.
After New London turned the ball over for the 22nd time — and 15th in the second half — the Bears set up a final play. Fuller signaled to run the offense and not call a timeout.
The ball ended up in Morgan’s hands.
“I was nervous,” Morgan said. “I didn’t really want to take the shot and the girl came up so I saw Naeva and I passed it.”
“We didn’t come all this way undefeated to lose,” said Rene, who finished with five points, seven rebounds and three blocks.
Belinda Hunte led Norwalk with 15 points and four assists. Wilson added 12 points. Morgan was one of three players with six points and also had five rebounds.
Fuller had a fully reasonable explanation on why he put the ball in Morgan’s hands.
“I look down that bench and I have a lot of weapons,” Fuller said. “When you have weapons like that you just pick one out. Hey, maybe this one will work today and Anajiah stepped up big today. She was a weapon for us.
“Every game it has been somebody different,” Fuller added. “Anaijah had a big game today. Naeva made the game-winning shot. She has all the confidence in the world and she has come a long way.”
— Dave Ruden (@DaveRuden) March 16, 2019
Melendez scored 16 points for the Whalers. Joniyah Bland-Fitzpatrick added 14 points and Jayden Burns scored 11.
On a rare day when the offense struggled — Norwalk shot just 34 percent from the field — the defense more than compensated.
“It really stepped up,” Wilson said. “It was lacking in the first half but we knew what we had to do in the second half and we did it.”
It would be impossible to script a better ending to a perfect season.
“I love Naeva for making that basket,” Wilson said. “It is amazing. No one even predicts going unbeaten at the beginning of the season. How could you? It’s just incredible.”