UNCASVILLE — During her Hall of Fame coaching career, Stonington High's Paulla Solar has won two state championships, several ECC titles and more than 400 career games over 31 girls basketball seasons.
But few of her squads have delighted the veteran coach as much as this edition of Bears.
Fifth-seeded Stonington completed its second-half turnaround from a 2-8 start by capturing the ECC Division II tournament championship with a 40-31 win over No. 2 Windham on Tuesday night at Mohegan Sun Arena.
The Bears (12-11) start three sophomores with a freshman reserve as the top sub in essentially a six-player rotation. During the regular season, Stonington split two games with defending ECC Division II champ Windham (13-9). Few considered the Bears, who finished dead last in the WCCU Holiday Tournament, as potential postseason tournament champions.
"I've had bigger [championships], but this team, I'm so proud of them," said Solar, who won state titles in 1980 and 2006 and was named to the Connecticut Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006.
"It's getting repetitive, but I don't know of how many that have started at the bottom at 2-8 and are able to pull through like this. Typically, you have good teams that keep rolling and rolling and win tournaments. This team, we had some tough roads, losing to a lot of teams. It was a hard sell to get the girls to believe in what we were doing."
The fact that Stonington never gave up makes this team special, Solar said.
"We have a saying: 'Pain is temporary; regret is forever,'" Solar said. "We came to practice religiously and went in the direction that we have to be tougher."
Stonington showed its toughness against a typically aggressive Windham team. The Bears did not unravel against the press and, in turn, punished the Whippets inside with their height edge of 6-foot sophomore Rory Risley, the tourney MVP who had 18 points and 11 rebounds, and 5-8 sophomore Emily Obrey (14 points, eight rebounds). Windham's tallest starter is 5-foot-7.
"The ECC in our division has shooters outside but not big girls in the post," Risley said. "We used our height advantage to get high-percentage shots. I play my part in the game. I believe we all have a role and do our jobs. We worked through hard practices and found our chemistry."
Stonington battled nerves early, falling behind 5-0 and missing its first seven shots. Solar called a timeout and reminded the Bears to pound the ball down low. Risley scored her first hoop with 10 seconds left in the first quarter to tie the score at 7.
Risley scored three buckets in the second quarter, and Obrey added two for all 10 of Stonington's points as the Bears took a 17-15 halftime lead.
Windham's Hailey Flores opened the third quarter with a 3-pointer to give the Whippets an 18-17 lead. Stonington amplified its man-to-man half-court defense, preventing any more Windham 3-pointers and holding the Whips to five points in the third quarter.
Obrey scored Stonington's first six points in the third, and Risley added three more inside baskets to give the Bears a 31-20 edge heading into the fourth quarter.
"Our outside shots didn't fall tonight," Windham coach Robert Mangual said. "Stonington's guards also did a good job against the press — Paulla is a great coach and worked on their press breaking. And we're a small team. They took advantage of their size."
Stonington hung on despite making a few turnovers and missing 6 of 9 free throws in the final two minutes.
Clinging to a 37-31 lead, Stonington got two free throws from Mackenzie Pettegrow — an all-tourney team pick who had five points, seven rebounds and four assists — with 23 seconds left to lead 39-31. Katelyn Cadmus added one more from the line to make it 40-31 with 15 seconds to go.
Obrey joined Pettegrow on the all-tournament team. Windham all-tourney picks Flores and Alyssa Lebisczak scored nine and seven points, respectively, which is well below their seasonal averages.
"It's insane," Pettegrow said. "We never thought we'd be here. At the beginning of the year, we didn't have any confidence and didn't know how to play with each other. We learned each other's strengths and came together as a team. Now we're here at the Sun and we won. It's pretty amazing."
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