WATERBURY — It started from the outset, with 4 quick missed shots and 4 turnovers.
The tone was set for the Westhill High School girls basketball team, and it never recovered.
Despite a valiant effort to overcome struggles caused in part by their own hands, and in part by their opponent’s, the Vikings’ season ended Friday night one win short of what they were billing as a “return” trip to Mohegan Sun, the site of the CIAC championship games.
Behind a balanced attack led by Olivia Bolden’s 16 points, South Windsor advanced to the state final for the first time in 36 years with a 58-40 win over Westhill in the Class LL semifinals at Kennedy High School.
“They played very well, knocked down free throws, dove on the floor and hustled,” said Steph Roones, one of four senior captains who played her final game. “You could tell they really wanted it. We did too. We did not play well and they did.”
Despite all their troubles, Roones jump-started an Edona Thaqi-led run late in the third quarter with a 3-point shot, as the 8th-seeded Vikings (19-6) cut what was once a 13-point deficit to 35-31 heading into the final quarter.
But Kristina Russo, who left the game late in the first half when she was struck in the face and her nose bled on the court for several minutes, scored on a putback and layup to ignite a 12-4 run.
Westhill never recovered. It got as close as 9 points on a 3-pointer by Thaqi, but No. 4 South Windsor (23-3) closed the game scoring 11 of the final 13 points.
“We shot a really low percentage today from the field,” said Westhill coach Mike King, his voice hoarse from yelling above a raucous crowd made up predominantly of South Windsor fans. “We really hurt ourselves from the foul line and they were really strong from the foul line, and I thought that was a big difference.”
The Bobcats scored 27 points from the foul line.
“That was the worst foul trouble we had all year,” King said. “We worked very hard to get it back and we just couldn’t get over the hump.”
Westhill lasted the longest of any FCIAC team in state tournament play, including taking out Danbury, the No. 1 seed, in the quarterfinals.
But the Bobcats cut through the conference, first beating Norwalk, then Greenwich. They will meet Lauralton Hall in the championship game.
Tyler Evans finished with 14 points for Westhill in her final game. Thaqi added 10.
King took his players to Mohegan Sun the day before tryouts in December to watch a men’s basketball game between Louisville and North Carolina, hoping it would form the start of a nice bookend.
“At the end of a year you try and say did we overachieve, underachieve or play to par,” King said. “I think we’ll look back and say we overachieved. We have a lot to be proud of.”
Both defenses dominated in the early going. South Windsor was held scoreless for the first 3:40, yet trailed by just 2-0 on a pair of Westhill free throws.
An inside basket by Bolden spurred a 14-2 run to end a quarter in which the Vikings turned the ball over 7 times, made just 1 of 10 field goal attempts and were just 2 for 6 from the foul line.
“Their defense was in our faces,” Roones said. “It bothered us a lot. Give them credit. When we had opportunities, we didn’t finish.”
South Windsor built its lead to as big as 22-9 in the half before a 3-point shot by Roones sparked the Vikings, who went on a 10-2 spurt and cut the deficit at the break to 26-19.
Thaqi played a part in the final 7 points, hitting a 3-point shot, scoring on a drive and then making a steal in the backcourt and nifty feed to Liz Gross for a layup.
Westhill’s only trip to the state final was in 1982, when it lost by 1 point to Southington.