NORWALK — Foul shooting has been the Norwalk girls basketball team’s lone liability this season, but it has seemed more like a blemish given the talent advantage it has held over nearly every opponent.
Tonight, the inability to make free throws opened the door for seasoned Mercy to overcome an eight-point fourth-quarter deficit and take a lead late in the fourth quarter of their Class LL quarterfinal game.
Then, during a frantic finish, the foul line became a gateway for the Bears to advance to the Final Four for the first time in 18 years. Following a Mercy miss, Norwalk’s Jakara Murray-Leach was tripped and fouled on a 3-point attempt with 0.5 seconds left. After a delay of several minutes, Murray-Leach made the first and final shot to give the Bears a 51-49 quarterfinal win over the defending champion.
“A lot was going on in the moment,” said Murray-Leach, who had missed two foul shots earlier in the period. “I was trying to get it down court as fast as possible and I was hacked in the moment. My nerves were messed up. I just wanted to get it over with. I was nervous. I really wanted the ball.”
The top-seeded Bears (26-0) will face No. 4 Hamden in the semifinals Monday night.
Norwalk had played just three games decided by four or fewer points, and in only one were they forced to make a play late while trailing. But the Tigers, who did not advance past the quarterfinals for just the second time in a decade, used a 7-0 run to take a 49-47 lead on two free throws by Lilly Hedge with 1:49 left.
After a Norwalk miss, Mercy turnover and a timeout, the Bears’ Ashley Wilson, who had coach Ricky Fuller open the gym for her last night to get in some extra shooting — with her mother rebounding — scored on a drive with 1:03 left to tie the game.
Mercy held for one shot, calling a timeout with 7.5 seconds left to set up a final play. Kameryn King, who had carried the offense, missed a shot over Norwalk’s Sanaa Boyd and Naeva Rene.
Murray-Leach recovered the loose ball and rushed toward the basket. As she was preparing to shoot, Mercy’s Sophia Finkeldey reached in and fouled her.
“She needs to make just one shot,” Boyd recalled thinking. “We had faith in her. She’s a very good foul shooter. We knew that she would get the job done.”
Then Murray-Leach calmly sank the first shot.
“I was like yes, yes, make one more, two if you can,” Boyd said.
Murray-Leach made one and there was not enough time for Mercy to attempt a shot.
“She stepped up,” Fuller said. “Hey, she was the FCIAC MVP in the tournament, I had confidence in her and I just wanted her to make one shot.”
Serenity Mayhew, a freshman who has had her biggest games against top non-league opponents, led Norwalk with 12 points and was a presence inside with her rebounding. Wilson added 11 points, while Rene finished with nine and Murray-Leach had eight.
“Final Four, it has been a long time since I’ve been here,” Fuller said. “Hamden is an outstanding team with outstanding players. We just have to come ready to play.”
King was outstanding for Mercy, finishing with 29 points. But guarded closely by Boyd, she was held to four in the final quarter.
“Those girls can shoot,” Fuller said. “From the one to the five. We told them in practice you can’t leave them open. We made a few mistakes here and there and left a lot of their shooters open and they knocked them down. That’s a credit to them. They are battle tested and defending champs. I’m just happy to walk out of this gym with a win.”
Norwalk was four for 10 from the line for the first 31 minutes and 59 seconds.
“I don’t know what else we can do,” Fuller said. “We make them all shoot 50 foul shots but there’s nothing like a game situation to step up and make the shots. You can simulate it in practice all you want but when it comes down to it they have to step up and make the baskets on their own.”
Added Boyd, “We did struggle a lot with foul shooting during the season but if we make it when it matters that’s all that counts.”