STAMFORD — After graduating its two best players a year ago, the feeling was the Ridgefield girls basketball team would remain an FCIAC contender because of superior athleticism. The question was would that be enough to win a championship.
The Tigers provided some insight tonight, using formidable pressure to gain a lead and then withstanding a furious late rally to win at Stamford, the defending league and Class LL champion, 43-39.
“We beat them with speed, and I think that’s one of the really good assets we have as a team this year,” said Caroline Curnal, who finished with 11 points and held her own inside against the Black Knights’ trio of 6-footers. “We may be small but our ability to, our coach calls it ‘slice and dice,’ to move the ball quick really helped tonight.”
Stamford (5-1, 3-1 FCIAC) came in riding a 17-game winning streak and had won 28 of its previous 29 games since a 64-41 loss at Ridgefield early last season. But the Black Knights could not handle the relentless pressure they faced, turning the ball over and failing to utilize their height advantage.
“I just feel we have really good athletes and we are going to go after teams,” Ridgefield coach Tom DiMarzo said. “We might not be the best basketball players but we have pretty good athletes.”
The Tigers (5-1, 3-1) graduated a class that included center Rebecca Lawrence and point guard Jess Camarda, two main pieces to their FCIAC championship in 2015. But this year’s team is like a walking advertisement for the argument against sports specialization.
Curnal and Elizabeth Middlebrook (7 points) played against Stamford in the state volleyball final in November. Curnal, a junior, has already given a verbal commitment to play lacrosse in college. Julia Middlebrook (6 points) and Claire Middlebrook (4 points) helped the Tigers win their second straight league title in girls soccer in November. Grace Goodwin (4 points) next year will be a member of the Holy Cross track team.
Meaghan O’Hara is the closest thing Ridgefield has to a gym rat, and she made four fourth-quarter free throws and finished with 11 points.
“You look at Elizabeth how she plays, you look at Curnal, she’s going against kids 6-4 and ripping balls out of their hands,” DiMarzo said. “We all kind of bought in into what we are trying to do this year. Good things happen when you trust each other.”
Ridgefield might have had a much easier time if it had not missed 11 free throws in the first half. It had a 37-25 lead on a basket by Curnal with 6:17 left — which turned out to be the Tigers’ final field goal.
Alexa Kellner scored 7 of her game-high 16 points in the fourth quarter to cut the deficit to 38-36 with 42 seconds left, but Elizabeth Middlebrook answered with two foul shots.
“I was like, we’ve been practicing our foul shots every single practice, more than one rotation, and I just had to make those two,” Middlebrook said. “Focusing was a big part of that last minute. Not just for me but for our entire team.”
Marthe Guirand (12 points) hit a basket for Stamford and O’Hara made two foul shots to make the score 42-38 with 14 seconds left. Curnal wisely fouled Kellner rather than allow her an uncontested layup with five seconds left. Kellner made one of two shots, and O’Hara’s free throw at the other end secured the win.
“Their defense was good,” Burns said. “I definitely think we were our own worst enemy tonight. In the beginning we looked all flustered and never really recovered from it. A lot of turnovers. It was 30 minutes of really terrible Stamford basketball. We were careless with the basketball, we made bad decisions with shot selection.”
Guirand was able to control the inside when she got touches, but the inability to run an offense limited them.
“Marthe played tough,” Burns said. “She came to compete tonight, but it has to be five people on the court and everybody on the team in order for us to be any good.”
Ridgefield’s only loss is to Trumbull, which is now the FCIAC’s last remaining unbeaten team. The Tigers may have provided a template for containing Stamford. At the least, it reinforced that there should once again be a multi-team race, and they will be part of it.
“This is definitely our statement win,” Curnal said. “We were kind of flying under the radar after we lost to Trumbull. Just to win this game tonight really means a lot to our coach, especially since they are reigning state champs. Just to come into their court and beat them, it was an interesting game at the end too. It was great.”