WATERBURY, March 13 – The hard lessons that the Canton High girls basketball team learned during a challenging eight-game stretch in February didn’t go to waste. After winning their first 15 games of the season, Canton went 4-4 in the final five games of the regular season and three games in the NCCC Tournament.
On Friday night, the Warriors began their semifinal game with No. 5 Notre Dame-Fairfield strongly grabbing an eight-point lead in the first quarter. And when the game got difficult, the Warriors didn’t buckle.
Top-ranked Canton (22-4) outscored the Lancers 12-2 in the final 2:15 of the game to break open a tie game and earn a spot in the Class S championship game for the first time since 1999 with a 52-42 win at Wilby High.
It’s just the third appearance ever for the Warriors in the final and Canton will face defending champion Thomaston, which is making its third consecutive trip to the Mohegan Sun Arena and the title game. The championship game is either Friday or Saturday.
Junior Emily Briggs led Canton with a game-high 20 points, including a six-point outburst in the third quarter that turned a three-point deficit into a three-point Canton lead. And teammate Emma Charron scored her only basket of the game on a beautiful feed from Briggs to extend the lead to five points.
“There was that stretch when we were losing close games and the girls saw it from both sides,” Canton’s second-year coach Brian Medeiros said. “When you don’t play four full quarters, you can lose games. That was our emphasis all week, just leave everything on the floor. These girls have no quit.”
When the game got tough, Canton didn’t hang their heads. They found other ways to contribute. “We told them that if you make a mistake early, get it back,” Medeiros said. “Maybe it is a box out. Maybe it is a deflection. Everyone who plays tonight found a way to contribute and I’m so happy for them all.”
Canton won by 10 but this was a close game. They needed everyone. Briggs averaged 15.3 points in the regular season. She has pushed her average up to 19.1 points in six post-season games. She was 10-of-13 from the free throw line, pulled down a team-high 15 rebounds, had five steals and four assists.
Maggie Treacy finished with 12 points but had a rough day shooting the ball. But she preserved and didn’t lose confidence. While she wasn’t scoring, she was playing defense and rebounding the ball.
Rebounding was a huge key for Canton. Notre Dame had numerous shots under the basket and in the paint that rolled off the rim. Canton pulled down 48 rebounds including 37 on the defensive side of the ball. Briggs had 15 but Gabby Rose collected 12 rebounds while Jacquie Grabowski had eight rebounds. Rose and Grabowski had six points each.
“Gabby and Jackie did such a great job boxing out and rebounding the basketball,” Medeiros said. “They were outsized and outmatched but you couldn’t tell by how hard they were working. I owe them. It’s not easy getting banged around for 32 minutes.”
Katie Walker tied a season-high with six points and had some sharp play at point guard with four assists.
“They put a lot of pressure on us,” Notre Dame coach Eric Demarco said. “They did a very good job of making us struggle with the ball on offense.” The Lancers had won four of its last five games including wins over New Milford and Newtown in the Southwest Conference tournament.
Canton led by five, 38-33, with 4:24 remaining in the game with a layup by Treacy. But Notre Dame went on a 7-2 capped off by a basket in the low post by Notre Dame junior Tracy Ceballos (11 points) to tie the game at 40-40 with 2:56 remaining.
On Notre Dame’s next four possessions, they took four shots and twice failed to get a rebound. On one play, Ceballos was fouled but missed the front end of a 1-and-1 while the Lancers fouled Canton on a fourth play. In the meantime, Canton sank five of six foul shots from Treacy, Walker and Briggs to extend the lead to five, 45-40 with 1:52 remaining.
Canton extended its lead to seven, 47-40, with 1:25 left in the game when Grabowski scored off glass on a nice assist from Walker. Notre Dame cut the lead to five on a basket by freshman Gabrielle Joseph but Briggs scored on a long, full court pass from Grabowski to push the lead back to seven. Canton closed out the contest with a 12-3 run with Briggs scoring six points.
Briggs sparked Canton in the third quarter. Notre Dame took its biggest lead of the game, 27-24, with 4:57 left in the third quarter on a basket from Joseph. But Briggs scored on a jump shot to cut the lead to one. She extended the lead to three with a layup on a fast break and gave Canton a 30-27 lead on a jumper in the lane.
Rose came up with a block on the next play and Briggs fed a wide-open Charron for her only basket of the game that gave Canton a 32-27 lead. Briggs had the assist on Rose’s basket with 17.9 seconds to give Canton a 34-27 lead after three quarters.
“Emily is a special kid and a special player,” Medeiros said. “She is so multi talented with the ball. She can post up. She can handle it, she can drive and shoot it.”
In all four of Canton’s losses, they started slow and had a tough time getting back into the game. Against Notre Dame, they led 13-5 after six minutes of play. They sank seven of eight foul shots.
“All week we said we were going to come out as hard as we could,” Rose said. “Anything can happen. We played our hearts out and brought it home. (A good start) really boosted our confidence.”
Now, Canton gets to play at the Mohegan Sun Arena for the first time with a championship on the line. When they played Valley Regional in 1999 in the Class S final, the game was at Central Connecticut State. In 1982, they played in the finals against Westbrook at Southern Connecticut State.
“It’s amazing,” Rose said. “I can’t put it into words. I’m shocked. All season we would say, ‘We have to go to Mohegan. We have to go to Mohegan. And now it’s actually going to happen. It’s the most amazing feeling.”
“It’s a dream come true,” Briggs said.
NOTES: Canton took 32 foul shots in the game and sank 20. … Canton lost the 1999 title game to Valley Regional and was routed in a loss to Westbrook in 1982. … In the second game at Wilby Friday night, No. 3 Thomaston (22-3) never trailed in a 57-41 win over No. 10 Immaculate-Danbury. The Bears took a quick 6-0 lead. Immaculate cut the lead to one, 12-11 but Thomaston sophomore Julia Quinn drained a three-pointed and hit a pull-up jumper to push the lead back to six. Thomaston led by as many as 17 points in the second half. Immaculate never cut the lead to less than seven in the final two quarters.
Morgan Sanson led the Bears with 22 points while Gabrielle Hurlbert added 11. Casey Carangelo had seven points in the second half on some nice inside plays. Kathryn Kerins led Immaculate with 13 points.
Canton 52, Notre Dame-Fairfield 42
Notre Dame-Fairfield (42): Kayla Croswell 7-1-15, Bryanna D’Archangelo 0-0-0, Gabrielle Joseph 2-0-4, Brittany Fulton 0-0-0, Precious Montgomery 0-0-0, Daniera Artis 1-1-4, Nakia Mabin 1-2-4, Raina Ceryak 2-0-4, Zuquila Mbachiantim 0-0-0, Taylor Ceballos 3-5-11. Totals 16-9-42
Canton (52): Katie Walker 2-2-6, Jacquie Grabowski 1-4-6, Emily Briggs 5-10-20, Maggie Treacy 4-4-12, Gabby Rose 3-0-6, Emma Charron 1-0-2, Abbe Skinner 0-0-0, Carly Atkinson 0-0-0, Leah Eschenbrenner 0-0-0. Totals 16-20-52
Notre Dame-Fairfield (20-6) 10 10 7 15 — 42
Canton (22-4) 13 7 14 18 – 52
Three-point goals: Artis (N)