Despite being the obvious underdog coming into the girls’ basketball Shoreline Conference final at Cross High School on the night of Feb. 22, third-seeded Morgan refused to initially believe that it couldn’t derail undefeated and top-seeded Cromwell and claim the coveted title, despite having lost to the Panthers twice during the regular season. But, thanks in part to many missed baskets, turnovers, and the Huskies’ inability to make crucial free throws, Morgan lost 44-33 and is now forced to put this loss behind them and focus on the upcoming state tournament.
“Cromwell’s been in this final a couple of times now in the past few years—they’ve been there, they’ve won it—so I can understand us starting out the game nervous, but for us to stay nervous for 32 minutes is unacceptable,” said Coach Joe Grippo. “We were hoping this year would be the year to put another banner up because we haven’t won it since 2005. We had opportunities tonight and honestly, as bad as we were playing, I think we should’ve been ahead at halftime and there were just way too many mistakes, turnovers, and bad decisions and I could go on and on forever, but I’m just disappointed in the overall demeanor of my team tonight.”
The Huskies put up a solid fight—particularly on defense—from the get-go, forcing a Cromwell turnover in the initial seconds of the game, but neither team could manage to get the ball in the basket and grappled for possession for several minutes until the Panthers scored the first two points of the match two minutes in. With solid defense from sophomore forwards Jen Dawson and Kelsey Donaldson, as well as a steal under the basket for sophomore guard Tori Hopkins (6 points), Cromwell scored another two points. Morgan forced two turnovers for the Panthers thanks to the defense of freshman guard Sami Ashton (9 points, 5 rebounds, 4 steals, 3 assists) and Donaldson, but Cromwell was able to get around and notch another two points, followed by two missed three-pointers by Ashton and Hopkins that ended the first quarter with the Panthers up 6-0.
The Huskies finally got on the board early in the second as Ashton notched two, but Cromwell responded with four consecutive points. Hopkins answered with one of her signature threes, again answered by two from the Panthers, and after two missed shots by the Huskies in which they were able to continuously get the rebounds, senior forward Sarah Thompson (10 points, 2 rebounds, 1 assist) brought the ball back outside and came back in a for a two-point layup. Cromwell again answered, but Ashton notched a three-pointer and the Panthers earned two to end the half 16-10 in favor of Cromwell, with Morgan very much still in the game.
“After having watched [second-seeded] Coginchaug play Cromwell close after our game with HK last night, I definitely felt this team was not unbeatable,” said Hopkins. “If we went out there and played our game the first half and not only scored 10 points, and we had gotten a lead, it would’ve been a totally different game. But we have to shake this one off and focus on states now.”
The third quarter remained close and Morgan came out of the locker room with intensity, as Thompson went in for a basket but was denied by a Cromwell defender and as she grabbed the rebound, fell to the ground and passed to Hopkins, who brought the ball back out and shot a three from the arc, much to the delight of the Husky fans. Morgan took advantage of some Cromwell weaknesses early and forced a Panther turnover as Thompson took the ball to the basket for two and brought the Huskies to within one, 16-15. Cromwell widened the gap with a three-pointer, but Thompson and Ashton responded with back-to-back twos, the latter after a steal. Morgan turned over the ball leading to another two from Cromwell, but the Huskies ended the third with a basket from Ashton, making the score 23-21 Cromwell after three quarters.
“I feel like we were the underdogs, but coming into the game, we knew they were beatable, we just didn’t execute,” said Ashton.
The fourth quarter proved to be the unraveling of the Morgan squad. Down by just two points at the start of the fourth, the Huskies were unable to make their free throws in the fourth (going 3-for-12 from the foul line in the entire game) and Cromwell took advantage of Morgan’s lack of aggressiveness on offense, leading the Panthers to run away with the lead in the final stanza. The Panthers scored 11 consecutive points at the onset of the fourth without an answer from Morgan before Thompson made the Huskies’ first free-throw shots of the night, notching two from the charity stripe. The Panthers notched another two to make it 36-23 with just over four minutes remaining in the game, followed by freshman forward Josie Sullivan’s two points and another from the foul line. The Huskies turned over the ball three times in the final minutes of the game, with Cromwell taking advantage and scoring six points before Thompson could get two in, followed by another two from Dawson. Donaldson launched a three-pointer from the arc for Morgan, but the clock expired and the Panthers took home the conference title with a 44-33 victory.
“You can give some of the credit to [Cromwell’s] defense, but we missed layups, we missed free throws, and that’s totally unacceptable the way we played. I can be a nice guy and say that I guess you have to blame me—we haven’t shot that badly from the foul line all year; we looked scared out there tonight and I’m disappointed in the effort and I’m disappointed in the way we played,” said Grippo. “The missed foul shots, the missed layups, the stuff that we tried to correct in terms of dribble penetrate the seams and we’re screwing around with the ball on the outside, just shooting jump shots. It’s like we were scared to take the ball inside because of their size and we can’t play the game just shooting the ball from the perimeter. It’s just inconceivable the way we played tonight.”