Norwalk girls basketball coach Ricky Fuller said there were stepping-stone moments over the last three months that provided indicators of his team’s capabilities.
First came a preseason jamboree at Danbury. Then a holiday tournament in Newtown, where the Bears defeated Pomperaug and Cromwell.
Then came an early January game against against Trinity Catholic, which had just received a boost when Mike Walsh, who had built the school’s boys team into a consistent power, took over as coach on an interim basis.
Norwalk defeated the Crusaders by 22 points.
“You see Walsh come in and you’re a little awestruck,” Fuller recalled. “The court is named after him. Afterward he said you guys can go all the way. Coming from him, that gave me a lot of confidence.”
The Bears are one win away from making Walsh’s view a reality. They will carry a 27-0 record into Saturday’s Class LL championship against New London.
This will be a rare non-league rematch at Mohegan Sun. The teams met on Jan. 26, with the Bears rallying for a 49-47 road win.
“I don’t think any coach ever thinks they’re going to go undefeated,” Fuller said. “That never entered my mind.”
This will be the Bears’ first appearance in the final since 2000, when Fuller was an assistant to Fred English. They defeated Norwich Free Academy for the title.
“He always said just be yourself,” Fuller said. “What got you here is what is going to help you win the game. No fancy stuff, just hard-nosed basketball.”
The Bears have a rare combination of talent and quality depth. There is one, often two and in some cases three players who can handle the roles that make a team successful. The rotation features eight players.
These attributes were all evident during Monday night’s semifinal win over Hamden. Ashley Wilson, the leading scorer who may have set a league record for being face-guarded this season, was able to score 14 points off her arcing rainbow jumpers. Naeva Rene was fierce dominating the boards. She added 16 points. Sanaa Boyd, the defensive specialist, held Hamden star Taniyah Thompson to 10 points. Belinda Hunte was exceptional running the offense and was able to penetrate and score a team-high 18 points. Jakara Murray-Leach was held to seven points, but she has been the leading scorer in most postseason games.
Then there are Serenity Mayhew, Anaijah Morgan and Carsyn Langhorn to fill situational needs.
“Our versatility is a key,” Fuller said. “They try to take Ashley Wilson out all season and I said to her you have to expect that this year. She hasn’t been putting up the prolific numbers but she has learned to do other things and when teams come after her the other girls get a chip on their shoulder and say, OK, you’re only going to come after her.’ We have a number of girls who can score. That’s a nice thing to have in your arsenal.”
Fuller said while he had high expectations with a veteran lineup, some players have exceeded them. Hunte got her first start against New London and has not relinquished the job. Murray-Leach, a sophomore, has matured quickly. And opposing scorers have found Boyd to be unshakeable.
“Belinda always has a tendency to start the season slow and about a quarter of the way through she starts to wake up and in big games she steps up,” Fuller said. “Jakara, I cannot say I am surprised. I see her every day. She’s getting better on the defensive end of the floor. It is nice to see her growth because she has so much potential. With Sanaa, her defense, she turned it up to another level. She’s always been good, but the way she has taken on some of the best players in the state has been an eye-opener.”
Norwalk had struggled getting past the first round of the FCIAC Tournament before winning the title this year. Last season it lost to Stamford in the quarterfinals and to Mercy in the state quarterfinals.
“I knew they came back with a little chip on their shoulder and wanted to prove something,” Fuller said.
Given their strength of schedule, in many respects it is remarkable that the Bears have remained unbeaten.
Fuller said it would be shocking, given all that has happened, if his players succumbed to the Mohegan Sun spotlight.
“We kept on handling challenges that were thrown our way,” Fuller said. “We had a target on our back. Everyone is giving you their best effort every night.”