NORWALK — The Norwalk girls basketball team tonight joined a long line of opponents lulled into playing at Trumbull’s methodical tempo.
The Bears determined if they could not speed them up, they would try to beat the Eagles at their own game.
Allowing just two fourth-quarter field goals until the closing seconds, Norwalk won the most anticipated game of the FCIAC regular season, 41-37, against the two-time defending champions. Both teams entered unbeaten in league play.
“Amazing. I’ve been waiting for this since freshman year so now that we finally beat them it’s great,” said Norwalk guard Ashley Wilson.
The Bears (19-0, 15-0 FCIAC), the No. 1 team in the state, secured the top seed in the FCIAC Tournament, which begins on Saturday. They also tenuously established themselves as the team to beat.
“We stepped up defensively in the fourth quarter,” Norwalk coach Rick Fuller said. “We told them stay on the ball, pressure, we have girls who can create and make shots but we said if you’re going to win this game you’ve got to defend. That’s what the girls did.”
Trumbull predicated its defense on taking away Wilson, a practice by most of Norwalk’s opponents. Wilson made just two 3-point field goals, though they were important. The Eagles’ Kelly O’Leary did an excellent job on face-guarding duties.
Belinda Hunte, who was terrific with the ball, led the Bears with nine points. Anaijah Morgan and Naeva Rene added eight points apiece.
“After the New London game I was kind of expecting they would do the same,” Wilson said about the way she was defended by the team that was No. 1 in the state at the time. “(O’Leary) played great de but I tried to make sure my teammates got looks and tried to get mine when I could.”
Allie Palmieri carried the offense for the Eagles (17-2, 14-1), finishing with 19 points. Cassi Barbato added nine points.
“Norwalk’s tough,” Trumbull coach Steve Tobitsch said. “I thought we made some good plays. I thought we could have done some little things a little bit better in this game that we’re going to learn from.”
The Bears were able to quicken the pace at the outset and used an 8-0 run to lead a 15-7 lead early in the second quarter after Wilson made a steal and set up Morgan for a layup.
But like an electronic toy slowed by an aging battery, play slowed as the Eagles created a halfcourt game and slowly chipped away. They trailed 24-18 early in the second half, then scored 10 straight points — all by Palmieri and Barbato — for a four-point lead. By the end of the quarter the score was tied at 28-28.
“I think our defense started to step up,” Wilson said. “We were way more aggressive coming out. We knew what we had to do in the second half to win this game.”
Palmieri made one of two free throws to give Trumbull what would be its final lead. The Bears went on a 7-1 run before Barbato scored on a left-handed drive to draw the Eagles within 35-33. Wilson then hit a long rainbow, her first points since the game’s opening possession, and Trumbull never again had the ball with the chance to tie or take a lead.
“Our girls did a good job. She got loose for two 3s and they were big 3s,” Tobitsch said of Wilson. “One got the momentum going to start the game and one was the big one at the end.”
Both teams were well-served having such a big test on the eve of the postseason. The Eagles finish up against Trinity Catholic, which is a game behind. They will need a win to secure the second seed.
“We’re right there but we need to clean a few things up in this final week of the regular season,” Tobitsch said. “Defensively we need to clean the boards a little bit better and we have to look for the shots we want on the offensive side. I think we rushed a couple that we didn’t need to. These are the games you want to play and hopefully we learn a lot from this.”
Fuller said it was beneficial to play at an unaccustomed pace.
“You have to adjust. If you are going to make it through you are going to have to play different styles,” Fuller said. “You have to be able to match it or force them to play your style of game.”