By John Goralski
A Middletown defender managed to get her hands on the basketball, and it launched a Blue Dragon fast break in the waning minutes of the opening half. Middletown’s guard sprinted the length of the floor with nobody in front of her. But as she skipped toward the basket for an easy layup, Kaitlin Paterson slapped it out of her hands from behind.
On Tuesday, Jan. 28, Middletown was desperate for an offensive opportunity. Southington held them to just two points in the first quarter. Middletown managed just 10 points in the first half. Even when their defense managed to spoil a Southington possession, the Lady Knights still seemed to get between their opponents and the net.
The Lady Knights looked like school yard bullies toying with a lesser opponent.
“You’re going to make mistakes on the offensive end, but if you come back on the defensive end it doesn’t hurt you as much. We did that tonight,” said Lady Knight coach Mike Forgione. “That’s just desire and hustle, and we talk about that all the time. You’re going to make mistakes, but you can always make up for it on the defensive end.”
The Knights entered the season with more questions than answers. Who would score now that most of their team was lost to graduation? How would their defense do now that most of their starters were gone? Could they return to the postseason with just one senior in the starting lineup?
Even Forgione balked in the preseason when he was asked about his team’s chance at the postseason, but the 39-18 victory over Middletown clinched a Class LL tournament bid.
“I told the kids from the first day that no one was going to out work us. We were going to get better every day. We were going to watch film and get scouting reports. Everyone’s going to do their job and all those little things, and we’re going to continue to try to get better,” said Forgione. “These kids responded.”
It’s not that Middletown was an easy win. In fact, the Blue Dragons (9-5) entered the game with a better record and a number of convincing wins. They were coming off a 72-point performance, and their lowest output was a 31-point effort in late December.
Nobody could have predicted an 18-point performance against the Knights. Middletown’s best quarter was an 8-point surge in the second quarter, but Southington still managed to win the period, 12-8.
“They scored 64 against Berlin. They scored 53 against Ellington and 57 against Hall. They had 55 against Manchester, and they are very athletic,” said Forgione. “Our goal was to keep their guards in front of us and get a body on [Brielle Wilborn]. You just have to want it more when you go up for those offensive and defensive rebounds, and our kids did that tonight.”
Natalie Wadolowski matched Middletown’s offense with 18 points, and she added 12 rebounds and five steals. Nicole Fischer scored seven. Maggie Meehan had six points and four assists. Paterson finished with five points, nine rebounds, three assists, and four blocked shots.
Southington led by 15 at the break and cruised to their eighth win.
“We wanted to extend our home winning streak to 18 games, and we wanted to get that eighth win to get us into the state tournament,” said Forgione. “I’m really proud of them. This was our first mini-goal. We have a lot more to accomplish, but I couldn’t be more proud of their effort tonight.”
Southington carried that momentum into Friday’s conference rematch at Conard. For the second time this season, the Knights held the Cheiftains under 40 points. Once again, the Knights won every quarter on their way to a 55-39 win.
“Every time that they would try to go on a little bit of a run, we would find an answer for them,” said Forgione. “Kaitlin Paterson had three big threes for us at different points of the game. She had one in the first quarter, one in the second, and one in the third, and those really helped. Natalie and the rest of them answered. It was a nice, team win.”
Once again, Wadolowski scored a double-double with 20 points, 13 rebounds, and eight steals. Paterson finished with 11 points, six rebounds, and three steals. Sarah Mongillo collected 10 points and five boards, and Meehan contributed eight points with six assists.
Southington built a 10 point lead by halftime and cruised to a 17-point win. Once again, Southington’s defense set the tempo with 17 steals, six blocks, and 30 forced turnovers.
“The kids are playing with a lot of intensity, and we always talk about heart and desire on the defensive end,” said Forgione. “We’ve been trying to get them to talk more, and they’ve been doing that with their rotations. We’re mixing up the man and zone defenses to put some pressure on them. We’re using a full court zone press back into a zone defense or man-to-man. I like to say it’s a total team effort.”
Now comes the final test. Southington (9-5) has one of its most difficult weeks of the season with rematches against NW Catholic (9-5), Newington (9-5), and Farmington (13-2). Southington went 1-2 on the road in their first meetings, but this time they’ll face them at home.
“It really is one game at a time,” said Forgione. “The one thing we have going for us is that we won 18 straight home games since the beginning of last year. The kids are already talking about getting it to 19. I think that winning streak has really built some confidence in them at home, and we’ve been tough. Hopefully that will continue.”
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By John Goralski