TRUMBULL — Jones. Austrie. McClure.
Mike Walsh, the interim girls basketball coach at Trinity Catholic, chuckled when his center, Iyanna Lops, was compared to some of the best players he coached while making the school’s boys basketball team one of the premier programs in the state.
Walsh did not deny the comparison, though, not after Lops finished with 29 points, 16 rebounds and eight blocks in a dominant performance that led to a 50-35 win over Ridgefield in tonight’s FCIAC Tournament semifinals at Trumbull.
“I’m not going to comment on that. They’re all great players,” Walsh said with a smile. “She did a good job tonight but I thought the team helped out around her. I thought we played very well at times and did some things that had me questioning. We didn’t play smart. With the lead especially. Hopefully we can correct that.”
Trinity (17-4), the third seed, is back in the final for the first time since 2010.
“I was very pumped,” Lops said. “I wanted to make sure I finished my senior year in the championship game.”
To win its first title in 11 years, Trinity is going to have to do what no one else has this year: defeat Norwalk. The top-seeded Bears (22-0) remained unbeaten with a convincing 49-36 win over Danbury in tonight’s first game.
For Walsh, it is 1993 all over again. That was the year he brought Trinity’s boys to the conference final for the first time and upset Fairfield, which was unbeaten and heavily favored.
“I think they’re an excellent team, they go nine deep, 10 deep, well coached,” Walsh said about Norwalk. “We’re just going to have to pick our spots and control tempo if we can. They don’t allow you to do that really.”
For the Bears, it is 2002 all over again. That was the last time they reached the final — and lost to the Crusaders, who won their first title by ending Norwalk’s three-year run.
After a sluggish opening five minutes, in which they made just one 3-point shot, the Bears turned up the defensive pressure against Danbury and ignited their offense. A 9-0 run near the end of the half gave them a 22-15 lead at the break, and they extended it to an 18-4 burst to go up by 14 midway through the third quarter.
“That’s what we rely on every game, get some good defensive pressure going and create some layups in transition,” Norwalk coach Ricky Fuller said. “We started doing that and they started feeling it. A little sloppy but it’s playoff basketball. You’re never going to get a clean game.”
Tonight it was Jakara Murray-Leach’s turn to lead the offense. The sophomore finished with 17 points.
“I had one of those good nights. Well-needed, at the right time,” Murray-Leach said. “It was all teamwork, work on defense, help defense, communication. Defense is key.”
With just three seniors on the roster, Fuller has grown accustomed to underclassmen stepping up.
“Jakara played a big game,” Fuller said. “A sophomore, bright lights, you never know what you’re going to get but she showed up tonight.”
Ashley Wilson, freed from weeks of constant face-guarding, made three 3-pointers and finished with 14.
“Their zone, we practiced against it, getting her some open looks,” Fuller said. “She found some shots tonight and that’s what we need going forward.”
Susana Almeida made four 3-pointers and scored 15 points for the fourth-seeded Hatters (16-6). Tianna Rogers added 12 points.
Lops made her impact on the second game right away, scoring Trinity’s first seven points after Ridgefield had its lone lead off an opening basket. Lops scored inside, made a 3-pointer and got herself to the foul line.
“I just had to play my game,” Lops said. “As a senior and as a captain. And just show that I can leave it all on the court.”
When Lops wasn’t making her presence felt on the offensive end, she was an impenetrable obstacle for the Tigers.
“I remember we had some pretty good shot blockers in the day too and she does a really good job of reading it and coming over to block shots,” Walsh said. “It’s nice to have her in the paint.”
Guard Caitlyn Scott did a great job running the offense and finished with eight points for the Crusaders, who never led by fewer than 10 in the second half.
Walsh has had the biggest impact by developing the Crusaders’ talent after taking over when Mike Martino unexpectedly stepped down as coach at the end of December.
Lops said the names of Trinity’s storied male players that hang on the banners in the gym — Rashamel Jones, Craig Austrie, Dave McClure, to name three — have greater meaning now than six weeks ago.
“I look up at them all the time and Coach Walsh knows what he’s doing,” Lops said. “He’s a great coach. He’s always bringing up the guys. And he has a great memory.”
Ridgefield (12-10) is a team built for the future that created a good present after upsetting Trumbull in the quarterfinals. There are no seniors on the team, the sophomore class is outstanding and there are a number of excellent athletes that have had success in other sports.
Kate Wagner led the Tigers with eight points.