Eight minutes separated the Trumbull High girls’ basketball team from the completion of a dream season on Saturday night at the Mohegan Sun Arena in the Eagles’ CIAC Class LL state title game with New London.
Trailing, 32-31, after three quarters, the Eagles were within one encampment of reaching the summit, then a devastating cold stretch hit. The Eagles, in part to the Whalers’ tenacious perimeter defense, didn’t score for six minutes, 27 seconds.
That void was all New London needed. The Whalers went on to a 42-36 victory over the class’s top-seeded team. New London came out of the other bracket to reach the final as the No. 3 seed overall.
Part of the crowd, estimated at 5,500 went silent. Trumbull players looked on with stunned looks on their faces. Head coach Steve Tobitsch knew he had an emotional group to console.
“We’ve had quarters like that this year,” Tobitsch said after emerging from the silence of the Eagles’ locker room. “Right now, it hurts. You have to feel for your players. But I just got through telling these kids that they went toe-to-toe with the best teams in the state in Class LL. We faced Warde (Fairfield Warde), NFA (Norwich Free Academy), Mercy and now New London. But being the state Class LL runners-up isn’t bad. Surely, I’d like to be on the other side. Being where we are is still very good.”
Trumbull made only two of 12 field goals in those final eight minutes and were held scoreless until there was only 1:33 remaining, when junior Julia Keckler, who finished with a team-high 12 points, canned a three-pointer from the right corner. Keckler would also score the team’s final points, on a layup in the closing seconds.
New London, which reached last year’s Class L final before bowing to Hartford’s Capital Prep, 51-48, only scored 10 points in the final quarter Saturday. It was all they needed.
“I had hoped that it would be a higher scoring game,” said New London coach Holly Misto. “But it was called close by the officials. I had hoped that they’d let us play a little more.”
Fouls hindered both teams. Trumbull’s Claudia Tucci was limited in playing time after getting in foul trouble, and eventually she fouled out. New London’s Rosie Nicholson collected three first-half fouls before managing to stay foul-free throughout the second half.
“Rosie is such a great athlete,” Misto said. “I told her we needed her in the game for her defense. She basically shut them down off the perimeter late in the game.”
Trumbull’s strength all season has been the three-point play. Against New London, the Eagles made only five out of 16 attempts.
“We weren’t able to get clean looks,” Tobitsch said. “Maybe I just didn’t do a good enough job of coaching. Once we fell behind late, I had to go to the bench. We needed to pick up the speed of the game. But, unfortunately, that played right into their hands.”
New London grabbed the initial lead on a three-pointer by Jada Lucas, Nicholson’s backcourt mate, at 6:30 and led 11-8 after one.
Down five, 13-8, early in the second, Trumbull put together a 5-0 run with a three from Kristen Pagliaro and a basket by Keckler inside to pull even, 13-13, at 6:53.
But again, New London, on the strength of its post-game from 6-foot-2 senior center India Pagan, went up by five, 21-16, on a Pagan put-back at 3:50.
Tucci then scored five of her six points by making all but one of her free throws.
Her good attempt with 40 seconds to play made it a one-point game, 21-20, before New London’s Xaryia Melendez scored on a short jumper in the paint which created the 23-20 halftime score.
New London expanded its lead to 28-23 early in the third quarter before the Eagles kept chipping away.
A three-pointer by Aisling Maguire at the four-minute mark cut the Whalers’ lead to 30-29, and it was Maguire again who scored on a layup with 1:40 showing that made it a 32-31 game.
Neither team scored in the closing minute plus 40 seconds where the Eagles scoring on a pair of layups.
It all led up to the fourth quarter.
“I thought Trumbull really stepped up its defense in the final quarter,” said Misto, whose team had elevated itself two divisions since 2015. “I kept telling our kids that what they needed to do was relax, to run our offense and get the ball into India in the paint.”
The elder of two sisters, India Pagan finished her high school career with an 18-point effort while also grabbing 11 of the Whalers’ 36 rebounds. Fellow forward Melendez had 10 points and seven boards.
Keckler was the only Trumbull player to reach double figures, with Maguire getting eight points and Taylor Brown scoring six on two threes.
Brown also had nine of Trumbull’s 29 rebounds.
Overall, Trumbull converted only 12 of 40 field-goal attempts (30 percent) and the Eagles were seven of 13 from the foul line (53.8 percent).
Trumbull committed 20 fouls to 18 for New London. New London turned the ball over 22 times while Trumbull had 21 turnovers. Keckler was credited with five steals.
Keckler’s overall game carried the Eagles at important times during the game.
“She’s tough’ she’s fearless and she’s a warrior,” Tobitsch said. “Being only a junior, it’s nice that she’ll be back next year.”
Each team ended its season with a 26-2 won-lost record. The last game, however, belonged to the Whalers.
“Everything has to come together perfectly to win a championship,” Misto said. “You have to overcome adversity, sickness, get the right match-ups and fall into the right bracket. We battled hard to get here. Now, our players can relax and enjoy this.”