As we sportswriters transition from the end of the high school season, there is always the quest for the new story idea, something we have not yet attempted. So while idly sitting on my couch over the weekend I had this thought: pick out the best performance from over the last ninth months that first comes to mind and reconnect with the athlete to see if/how life has changed.
And the winner — without searching old clips I still cannot recall a better one, especially given the stakes — is Erin Cunningham’s spectacular show on March 21 to help lead the Wilton girls basketball team to its first state title, a 73-45 rout of South Windsor in the Class LL final.
There were multiple storylines at play leading up to the game, but in the end the Warriors, despite varied contributions, fed off the fireworks of Cunningham, their best player, who in her final game, on the biggest stage, finished with 33 points and 19 rebounds.
“It was just a great way to end my career,” said Cunningham, three months and one day later. “It was amazing.”
The game was just weeks removed from the Warriors losing in the semifinals of the FCIAC Tournament, giving a senior-laden roster that had won three straight youth league titles before arriving at the high school one last chance to make good on a title many in the town predicted would come.
“Most of the pressure was put on by us and the team,” Cunningham said. “We knew we were capable of winning championships. We kept getting close to one and not coming through. We were tired of just being a very good team and not being able to bring home the hardware.”
The game was played on a Saturday night, and Cunningham recalled that there was not much unusual prior to the bus ride from Wilton up to Mohegan Sun except for a little piece of foreshadowing.
“I told my dad that morning that if I could make my first shot it would help out,” she said.
Cunningham said there is only one consistency to her pregame ritual: upbeat music played at a high decibel. She got to do a lot of listening: traffic on the ride up delayed the Warriors’ arrival.
“Sitting on the bus, the anticipation about getting there was rising,” Cunningham said. “We walked in to the arena and saw the bright lights and the floor was colorful. The South Windsor fans came in at that point so that was a little intimidating.”
But, as Cunningham noted, the late arrival ended up being a positive; there was not enough time to get nervous about the surroundings. The team had to hurry to get on the court for warmups.
For a team that had waited so long to live up to the expectations of so many — most of all their own — Wilton ended up playing in one of the most anticlimactic finals ever.
Cunningham and Makenna Pearsall, known more for her overall contributions than scoring output, started on fire. Cunningham indeed hit her first shot, a layup, followed by an open 3-pointer. Wilton quickly had a 14-point lead as Cunningham scored 13 points in the first quarter. She was just over her season average at halftime, with 21 points as the Warriors led by 45-25.
“The first half everything was just flowing and we were scoring pretty easily. Erica was dominating inside and Makenna and Haley were doing everything,” said Cunningham referring to fellow seniors Erica Meyer, the center who finished with 17 points, 11 rebounds, 6 assists and 4 blocks, and Haley English. “Everything was rolling so fast and then at halftime I was like, that team is here for a reason, we can’t stop, we can’t let them back in the game.”
The Warriors did not let up, building the lead to 27 by the end of the third quarter. After all the tight postseason games that came up short, or even the rally in the state semifinals to defeat Mercy, Wilton was in the unusual position of trying to kill time to finally enjoy a celebration four years in the making.
“We took the air out of the ball but I don’t think it hit me we were winning the state championship until there were 20 seconds left,” Cunningham said. “I was standing near my bench and I looked back at the girls and made a face and said, ‘Oh my god, we’re winning states.”
Cunningham will be remembered for producing one of the best individual efforts in state history. She made 12 of 20 shots — including 4 of 5 from 3-point range — and had 11 offensive rebounds that led to easy putbacks.
The highly respected natural 2 guard, who played the forward positions for the good of her team, turned her final appearance in a Wilton uniform into a game of Nerf basketball.
Cunningham said the days following the win allowed the Warriors to enjoy the celebrity they were accorded by their fans, especially the youth players who hope to follow in their footsteps, and revel in what had been an elusive sense of fulfillment.
“We had a lot of success and won the last three years before we got to the high school,” said Cunningham, who is headed upstate to play at Trinity College. “The competition got much harder. That was our last shot to really do it, and when it came together it was really amazing. It was a great experience to go through with a great bunch of people.”