NORWALK — Old money won out during today’s FCIAC Girls Basketball Tournament quarterfinal games at Norwalk High School.
Top-seeded Trumbull and No. 5 Stamford both advanced, setting up a rematch of last year’s championship game in Tuesday’s semifinal round. The two schools have occupied six of the 14 spots in the final during the last seven years.
After Stamford defeated Norwalk in the opener 65-57, Brady Lynch got the Eagles off to a hot start and Julie Keckler delivered daggers to thwart several comeback attempts in a 54-46 win over eighth-seeded Darien, which delivered a spirited effort.
Lynch has been a star for the school’s soccer team, and makes herself a factor in a number of different roles for Trumbull, including scoring, rebounding, interior passing and, again today, being mindless of her body going to the floor for loose balls.
“We were definitely excited, been here before and knew that even though it was a 1-8 matchup, Darien wasn’t going to be an easy game,” said Lynch, a cerebral athlete who finished with 14 points, 8 in the opening period. “Their post players are very good and we knew we had to get on the boards early and get the shots that we could get. Rebounds were very big and moving the ball around because they play zone, so that’s where we got a lot of wide open layups.”
Keckler, the catalyst with the most game experience, led Trumbull (20-1) with 17 points. Keckler hit the biggest shot after the Blue Wave got within 46-38 with 3:14 left after 5 straight points from Katie Ramsay. Keckler calmly hit a 3-pointer, Cassi Barbato added another and Trumbull pulled away.
“That’s kind of been Julie’s thing all year,” Lynch said. “Silencing the crowd. Teams go on a run and she’s able to hit that 3 or hook up a teammate for an open shot.”
The Blue Wave (11-10), who used a strong final month to earn a playoff berth, received 19 points from Chrissie Fiore and 14 from Ramsay. They hung around long and close enough to keep Trumbull out of a comfort zone.
Perhaps there is no such thing as a traditional Trumbull player because of the varied qualities they bring to form a collective whole, but Lynch certainly embodies all of them, and this was a showcase on a day when none of her numbers jumped out.
“Brady has had a terrific year,” Tobitsch said. “Everybody knows her as a soccer player and the terrific athlete she is. Without Brady Lynch I don’t think we would have got where we did last year without her off the bench, and this year she’s been a mainstay for us from the beginning. She’s very athletic and tall and can play inside, and plays with a lot of confidence and that rubs off on everyone.”
Tobitsch was voted the league’s Coach of the Year by his peers on Thursday, but there certainly would have been no outcry if the award had gone to Stamford’s Diane Burns, who lost Alexa Kellner, the league’s best player, to a torn ACL during the first game of the calendar year. The Black Knights were 8-2 in their previous 10 games leading up to today, with one of the losses by 23 points to Norwalk eight days ago.
The Black Knights (15-6) never trailed today in the second half — there were three ties — but played relentless on the defensive end in an extremely physical game, got good interior play and a tour de force offensive performance from Brooke Kelly, who finished with 30 points.
“We weren’t going to lose that game,” said a smiling Kelly, who scored 14 points in the final quarter and 11 in all from the foul line. “We were going to win by any means necessary. That was my feeling. We don’t go out in the first round. That is who Stamford High is. Considering the success we’ve had, that was not an option. That first Norwalk game was pretty horrible and really motivated us, and we wanted to come back. From the beginning it was different.”
Jakara Murray scored 16 points and Sanaa Boyd added 13 for Norwalk (17-4), which suffered its third straight loss.
The Bears turned the ball over 17 times and could not get a stop in the final quarter as Stamford scored 25 points. Andrea O’Connor (13 points) and Claudia Moses controlled the paint while Megan Landsiedel scored 13 points and at times seemed like a good fit at fullback for the school’s football team.
“Defense is always what fuels our offense, it fuels everything for us,” Burns said. “If we can get up on the defensive end and force turnovers and make other teams uncomfortable, we feel that we have the advantage. Defense was definitely big today from a lot of kids. Claudia was big today. We don’t win that game without her. Everyone focuses on Andrea. She stayed composed the whole time, she was able to get the ball and out to a guard. She was a key for us.”
Diversification has helped keep the momentum going without Kellner, who had her surgery last week and addressed her teammates before the game.
Burns noted there has been collaboration even during the tenure of guard Tiana England, who helped lead the school two years ago to league and state titles.
“We never focus on one person anyway,” Burns said. “I know that sounds crazy when we had Tiana but everybody had a job and everybody has to do it to the best of their ability. Some jobs are bigger than others. So when Alexa went down everyone owned that leadership.”
While Stamford is the lowest remaining seed — Tuesday’s other semifinal features No. 2 Wilton and No. 3 Fairfield Warde — Kelly noted that given the closeness of the regular-season standings, there was cause for optimism.
“Everyone goes a little bit out of their comfort zone every day just to compete and be with these other teams, and we still believe we’re one of the better teams,” she said.