GLASTONBURY — Back on Feb. 7, the E.O. Smith girls basketball team had lost its third straight game, to East Catholic, in overtime.
“If you look at the film of when we played them in overtime, we were almost sleeping through our defense,” E.O. Smith coach Mary Roickle said Thursday night. “That was not acceptable.”
E.O. Smith went into the CCC tournament as the 14th seed out of 16 teams. But after the loss to East Catholic, the Panthers had a renewed commitment to defense. It showed in their win over Conard in the tournament semifinals Tuesday and once again Thursday as they stifled fourth-seeded East Catholic and won their second straight CCC tournament championship, 42-28, at Glastonbury High School.
Courtney Doherty led the Panthers (18-7) with 19 points. But the defense was the story. East Catholic had scored 73 points in a win over Bloomfield in Tuesday’s semifinal. The Eagles (18-6) managed 14 in the first half Thursday and only three points in the fourth quarter.
“They just pressured us, essentially,” East Catholic coach Jeremiah Brown said. “A lot of active hands. They communicated very well. They’re very fundamental on defense. Offensively, we got stale. We didn’t have our off-ball screens. We had a lot of standing around. Too much dribbling. Those were our bad habits earlier in the season and we reverted back to those bad habits. A lot of standing around, watching, waiting for somebody to make something happen.
“And they did a good job as far as closing out, getting hands up on shooters. They didn’t give our shooters a clean shot. Then we had a hard time, when we attacked, finishing layups.”
Cami Pasqualoni led East Catholic with nine points. It was the Eagles’ first trip to the tournament championship.
E.O. Smith had been there before and it showed, as the Panthers attacked the basket aggressively in the first half and played equally aggressive defense.
“In our last game [against East], we lost in overtime, when we reviewed the film, we realized there were some things we could do defensively that we felt we didn’t do in the first game,” Roickle said. “I think a little bit more pressure, a little bit more closing to their three-point shots … their commitment to defense has been just awesome.”
The Panthers didn’t really care about their seeding. They beat third-seeded Northwest Catholic 59-43 in the first round and No. 6 Glastonbury 50-42 in the quarterfinals. They improved as they advanced, beating Conard 57-28 in the semifinals.
“We got 10 times better over four games,” Doherty said.
E.O. Smith led 15-8 after a quarter and 28-14 at halftime. The Panthers’ offense slowed in the third quarter, when East Catholic upped its defensive pressure and forced turnovers. But the Eagles had a hard time finishing their shots, especially on the break, and missed some open looks. They trailed 34-25 after three quarters but then went cold again in the fourth quarter, hitting only one shot, a three-pointer by Emily Jeamel with a little over two minutes left.
The Panthers had lost three close games to open the month — to Berlin 47-46, Simsbury 35-32 and then to East Catholic 55-53.
“Kudos to the captains, Allie Raynor, Courtney Doherty and on the floor, the leader, Taylor Golumbiewski, came to me and said ‘We’re not doing it defensively. We need to create defense,’” Roickle said. “That’s what we’ve focused on to really take the next step.
“When we went into the tournament the 14th seed, we did not feel we were the 14th seed. But we had to come out and prove it. And these young ladies did an awesome job over the past four games.”