WESTPORT — Getting players to buy into a defensive philosophy can sometimes prove counterintuitive when they are top multi-sport athletes accustomed to producing rather than preventing scoring.
That has never been an issue for the members of Staples’ girls basketball team, which saw a path to success.
“I think at the beginning of the season we emphasized that we were a quick and athletic team and defense is what is going to win games for us,” said Elle Fair, the Wreckers’ bellwether at point guard. “Keeping that in mind and run with that.”
Coming off sizable losses to their last two opponents with winning records, the Wreckers reverted to a familiar formula, using pressure as a catalyst and building an early first-half lead tonight against Fairfield Warde. That allowed them the cushion to withstand a furious rally and come away with a critical 56-45 win.
“We score a lot off of our defense,” Staples coach Paco Fabian said. “We always say one more steal and we will keep scoring. That’s what has really pushed us over the top in a lot of games. In the games we’ve lost we didn’t play good defense.”
The Wreckers were coming off a 17-point defeat to Norwalk two nights earlier when they allowed 40 second-half points. That was preceded by two easy wins after a 23-point loss against Trumbull.
“I was a lot more nervous for this game than some other games because when you lose a couple you feel like it can really stop going,” Fabian said. “Once you start slumping you don’t know if you will be able to turn it back around so that’s a really big win for us. Warde is a great team.”
The Wreckers (11-3, 9-2 FCIAC) got a balanced attack, led by Arianna Gerig’s 16 points. Fair had an explosive first quarter with 11 points and tallied 13 by the half. But she sat out much of the second half with foul trouble and did not score again. Staples was affected without its top playmaker.
“It was definitely frustrating sitting on the bench,” Fair said. “I made some dumb fouls tonight but our bench players stepped up huge and helped get us the win.”
With Fair out, the Mustangs, who trailed 39-20 early in the third quarter, scored 10 straight points in just two minutes. Fair ended the run — temporarily — with a runner, but Olivia Parisi helped get them within 41-35 before the Wreckers scored eight of the next nine points and held on.
“It was hard,” Fabian said. “Our leader handling the ball and doing everything on offense is Elle and she was out most of the game in foul trouble. When Warde put pressure on us it was very difficult in the second half.”
Parisi scored 17 points for the Mustangs (10-3, 7-2) but fouled out with just under 4 1/2 minutes remaining. Caroline Aufiero added 8 points.
Warde fell behind 18-9 late in the first quarter but trailed by just four by the end of the period. It eventually had difficultly constantly overcoming deficits.
“We were making the right decisions, they kind of sped us up,” Warde coach Dave Danko said. “We broke it pretty well but we didn’t have some good defensive stops to allow 18 points in the first quarter. I thought it was soft passes. That’s a playoff team. And you play these teams that are going to be in the top eight, you make a mistake, you’re not going to cover it up. When we made a mistake they made us pay. They capitalized and we paid for it. Did we battle back? Yeah, but right now playoff teams that we play, you can’t do that.”
Nicole Dienst added 8 points for Staples, which continues to ride its intensity.
“Defensive pressure has been something we’ve been working on in practice,” Fair said. “We knew that if we pressed them, our press has been working against other teams and is difficult to break and that’s what happened in the first half. And because of that it helped us offensively as well.”