RIDGEFIELD — It was a year ago that Wilton, the FCIAC girls basketball preseason favorite, dropped its opening game, to Fairfield Ludlowe.
Three months later it was celebrating the program’s first state title.
That was the message of inspiration trumpeted for 48 hours by Tom DiMarzo, the Ridgefield coach whose team is this year’s Warriors, following up an FCIAC title with a loss to Trumbull Monday night in its first game.
“It’s a learning experience,” DiMarzo said.
The Tigers picked it up quickly, as least judging by Wednesday’s 64-41 rout of Stamford in their home opener. Ridgefield scored the game’s first seven points, quickly built a 14-2 lead and was never threatened thereafter, going into the locker room at the half with a 45-22 advantage.
“We definitely learned from the Trumbull game,” said Ridgefield point guard Jess Camarda, the conference’s human gnat, bothering opponents with her non-stop tenacity, then breaking them down with her ability to both create or score either from the outside or on drives. “We came into the Trumbull game not with our heads straight at all. We are not going to let that happen again.”
You could make strong arguments for several factors being the keys to the Tigers’ win. Their three-guard attack was unrelenting, with Camarda scoring 19 points and Julia Middlebrook and Meaghan O’Hara adding 14 apiece. They helped Ridgefield erupt for 25 first-quarter points against a Stamford team that is among the league’s best.
“We’re a running team,” Camarda said. “Our weakness is in the half court. We want to get layups, get fouls.”
One could note that this early eruption came with the team’s best player, Rebecca Lawrence, not getting touches in the first quarter. Not that Lawrence was without impact, blocking four shots early that led to points in transition and controlling the defensive boards.
The vote here for the outcome’s biggest key was the Tigers’ defense. They played a 1-2-2 zone that morphed into a 1-3-1 at times to contain Tiana England, the Stamford guard considered by most the league’s best player. England finished with 12 points, second to Alexa Kellner’s team-high 14, and was not provided the space to control tempo, let alone get many good looks.
“Tiana’s a great player,” Camarda said. “We thought if we played a 1-2-2 we could stop her a little bit and stop the shooters in the corner.”
The strategy yielded bonus benefits.
“I think we had our hands in the passing lanes and deflected a lot of balls,” DiMarzo said. “Zone is always a little bit better than man for getting out in transition.”
Stamford coach Diane Burns, already keenly aware of the difficulty playing the Tigers at home, was not exactly thrilled she would be getting them coming off a loss as well.
“They were angry but we didn’t get angry back,” Burns said. “We came up here acting like we were going to walk over them. Maybe it was overconfidence.”
Overconfidence against the team ranked third in the preseason state poll?
Burns smiled. “Crazy, isn’t it,” she said.
Stamford to its credit played much better in a sluggish second half and has too much talent to be discounted off the game, but also got a tutorial in what it will take to compete with the league’s elite.
“This could end up being a great lesson, depending on how they react to it,” Burns said.
Burns can point to how the Tigers responded to a despairing loss.
“I think we gave away a game,” DiMarzo said, referring to two nights earlier. “Nothing against Trumbull, they are a really good team, but we didn’t come ready to play. We hurt ourselves not being prepared mentally. You can’t do that in this league.”
Last year the Tigers entered as the hunter, coming off a disappointing season. Now they are the hunted, with one title to defend and another to pursue.
“It’s definitely an adjustment,” Camarda said. “Every single game you have to come out with the mentality we can lose to anybody. We are not just going to roll all over everyone. That’s not the way it’s going to happen.”