Westhill High School girls basketball coach Mike King took the returning members of his team up to Mohegan Sun in December, the day before tryouts and the start of practice, to watch a men’s game between North Carolina and Louisville.
The trip was not just about watching two top college programs.
“I wanted them to see what the atmosphere was like and to try and get back there,” King said. “Now we are one win away.”
Mohegan Sun is the site of the CIAC basketball championships, and the Vikings can make a return trip to the venue with a win over No. 4-seeded South Windsor in Friday’s Class LL semifinals.
The eight-seeded Vikings reached the Final Four by stunning No. 1 Danbury on Monday night, 55-54. The Hatters, 11 days removed from their third straight FCIAC title, were riding a 23-game winning streak.
Westhill (19-5), on the other hand, was eliminated in the opening round of the conference playoffs.
“It was frustrating to lose in the first round, but the girls got to watch Danbury play three times in the tournament,” King said. “While obviously you would rather win, sometimes sitting out gives you time to refocus. It is certainly not fun sitting around.”
King said he used the break between the league and state tournaments differently this year than in past seasons.
“We spent a week getting back to fundamentals and working on a few of the weak points of our game,” King said. “I didn’t set up any scrimmages. We just practiced and got back to the basics and working on the things we were not doing well. Passing the ball better and dribbling less. In the past we have always set up more scrimmages.”
King said he had a better feeling about the Vikings’ chances against Danbury when his players were loose during warmups.
“The girls got to see them a couple more times during the FCIAC Tournament and that contributed to their confidence level,” King said.
Westhill led for most of the game and was up by 9 points with five minutes remaining. Led by Boston College-bound guard Rachel Gartner and her twin sister, Rebecca, the Hatters rallied to tie the game before the Vikings regrouped and pulled away.
Tyler Evans finished with 18 points and Edona Thaqi added 14 for Westhill.
“Rachel was hitting tough shot after tough shot,” King said. “I don’t think our defense was poor, they hit big shots. The twins in the fourth quarter really stepped up. We were all over their kids and their kids were still knocking them down.”
Westhill has been to the state championship game just once before, in 1982, when it lost to Southington, 44-43.
The Vikings have to overcome one more formidable team in their path. South Windsor defeated Norwalk by 39 points in the first round and Greenwich, which eliminated the Vikings in the quarterfinals of the FCIAC playoffs, by 16 points in the second round.
Having three days off should erase the chances of the Vikings suffering from lingering giddiness after defeating the Hatters.
“I’m not worried about that,” King said. “I’m not worried about a hangover from Danbury. They have the motivation to get to Mohegan Sun. They want to experience championship week there. They want to end the season where they started it.”