FAIRFIELD — Tiana England’s first shot Friday night barely glanced off the rim. Her next seven attempts also missed the mark.
Yet fittingly, when the FCIAC’s best player finally hit her first shot, a long 3-pointer with 1:14 left in the first half, it gave the Stamford High School girls basketball team a 21-20 lead over Fairfield Warde.
That the Black Knights were not trailing by a large margin spoke volumes about both England and her teammates, and was the reason a 37-year conference championship drought ended after a 56-48 win over the top-seeded Mustangs.
Asked her thoughts during the early cold stretch, England said, “The team was going through my mind. They go off of what I do. If I have my head down they’ll have their heads down. I had my composure and they helped me and picked me up.”
England had 3 assists before that first basket, two to Alexa Kellner, a sophomore who scored 8 of her 14 points in the first half.
“When she struggles we all know we have to pick it up so she can get back in the game and run things the way she always does,” Kellner said.
If there was even doubt, Friday dispelled any notion that Stamford is a one-person team and was evidence of both the completeness and greatness of England, who scored 11 points during a decisive third quarter, 19 for the game and was named the most valuable player.
“It feels amazing,” England said. “Being here four years and not even making it to the finals once is crazy, but I am glad we got to finish off senior year the right way.”
The Black Knights (20-2) earned their title in a rematch of the 2009 final. They defeated Warde and third-seeded Trumbull, in reverse order, two weeks in a row. The Mustangs were unbeaten in league play against 15 schools and 0-2 against Stamford.
“It feels great,” Stamford coach Diane Burns said. “I don’t think it has really fully sunk in yet. We’ve come a long way and that is because of the way they work in practice. We bust our butts every day. We have a lot of weapons this year.”
Camille Martinez made consecutive 3-point shots in the middle of a 10-0 run that gave second-seeded Stamford an 18-14 lead midway through the second quarter. Martinez ended up with 13 points.
Then England took over, in all manners. She set up Kellner for a 3-point shot, hit a 3-point shot and then scored on a 3-point play when she made a runner off the dribble and was fouled. That put the Black Knights ahead, 38-24. England even blocked a shot and went coast to coast for a layup.
“The third quarter, that was big, going on runs, that was really big for us,” England said. “It was important to start off strong the second half and put the nail in the coffin.”
England’s biggest basket of the night came with 2 1/2 minutes left in the game. Warde (21-2) cut the lead to 45-39 and got the ball back on the missed front end of a one and one. England made a steal and turned it into a layup.
Warde, which was led by 15 points from Shania Osborne and 10 apiece by Daja Polk and Iliana Krasniqi, would get no closer.
Stamford kept the ball in England’s hands the rest of the night, and cornering her is like trying to catch an eel with pliers.
“Despite missing her first eight shots she kept her composure and continued to run the team,” Burns said. “You could tell that T was a little frustrated but she kept it together. That’s her senior leadership. And the other girls did step up. They are a complete team and realize they have to be to beat a team like Warde.”
England bounced around the court postgame with the same zeal she had just used to escape traps. She accepted hugs, clutched a trophy and medal and finally took a deep breath.
The Black Knights had to play their state playoff opener in 18 hours, but they were going to use a few of them first to celebrate.
“All year everyone has been stepping up,” England said. “I am so proud of them. I couldn’t have asked for a better team.”