CROMWELL - The Cromwell Panthers left Clinton on Dec. 13 with a humbling 54-44 loss at the hands of the Morgan Huskies. To any other team, losing the second game of the season would be a ho-hum experience, but it was significant for head coach Kelly Maher and her Panther girls. The loss was Cromwell’s first in 29 games and helped refocus a team that is pursuing back-to-back championships.
Since the loss, Cromwell had reeled off 13 wins in a row. Last Thursday, the Panthers had a chance at redemption against the Clinton-based school and this time they had home court advantage on their side. Using the energetic home crowd at Salafin Gymnasium, which one spectator referred to as the sixth man, Cromwell delivered a dramatic 49-47 victory.
From the opening tip it appeared that Cromwell would cruise to an easy victory, scoring the game’s first 12 points and blanking Morgan until the 1:08 mark of the first quarter. However, the Huskies used a 9-0 run to claw their way back into the game by deploying a full-court trapping defense that seemed to frustrate the normally polished Panthers.
Once the second quarter began, Cromwell was able to beak Morgan’s defensive press and minimized their scoring runs for the rest of the half, holding a comfortable 26-12 advantage entering the third quarter.
Undeterred, Morgan scored the first 10 points of the second half, seven scored by point guard Sami Ashton, which helped deadlock the score at 33 as the third quarter came to a close. Ashton, with her relentless effort and ability to push the tempo of the Huskies’ offense, was a major reason that the Huskies stayed competitive. The sophomore finished with 19 points, six rebounds, four assists, and a pair of blocks and steals. Her counterpart, Emily Appleby was just as relentless. Cromwell’s senior captain played a terrific all-around game and kept her Panther teammates composed when Morgan made one of their many spurts.
Feeling as if the momentum had swung in the favor of Morgan, the standing room only crowd began the fourth quarter with the chant of “D-Fence.” Cromwell delivered, forcing Morgan into two consecutive turnovers. The Panthers scored the final stanzas first five points, all by senior captain Janelle Harrison, who finished with a game-high 21 points and nine rebounds.
One final time, Morgan shook off the Panthers’ burst and fought their way back into the game with 10-4 run. The visitors took their first lead of the game when junior Jen Dawson grabbed an offensive rebound and banked in a shot with 2:27 left in the game. The rebound put-back gave Morgan a 45-43 lead.
Cromwell tied the game at 45 when Nicole Rojas threaded a perfect pass to Alyssa Wright, who made an uncontested layup with 1:03 to play. The assist was one of three on the night for Rojas, who also tallied 11 points.
Morgan’s Lily Dawson gave the Huskies the lead right back when she knifed through the Panthers’ defense and finished with a finger roll off the backboard.
Down by two, Cromwell set up a play for the all-conference Harrison, who took the ball to the middle of the key and hit a leaning jump shot, which was immediately proceeded by a whistle. It appeared at first glance that the official had called Harrison for an offensive charge, which perturbed the home crowd, but the official actually called a blocking foul on the Huskies, giving Harrison a chance at an old fashioned three-point play. Harrison calmly sank the free-throw to give the home team the lead back, 48-47.
With 25 seconds remaining, Morgan was unable to score on their next possession and Harrison grabbed the defensive rebound, before being fouled. Harrison split the pair of three-throws and a desperation heave from Ashton fell shot, preserving the Cromwell victory.
The win improved Cromwell to 15-1 and they’ll have three more tune-up games until the tournament starts. They could end up facing their new rival Morgan (13-2) again in the postseason, which would be played at a neutral site. Two of Cromwell’s final three games will be at home, starting with Coginchaug Regional on Thursday. The Panthers struggled offensively, but dominated defensively in their first meeting with Coginchaug, en route to a 39-24 victory on Jan 10. Tip for the rematch game will be at 7 p.m.