West Hartford’s Conard High School defeated E.O. Smith Tuesday night in the CCC Tournament semifinal.
By Paul Palmer
The No. 6 seeded Conard girls basketball team will play in Thursday night’s CCC Tournament final after knocking off second-seeded E.O. Smith 35-31 at the University of Hartford on Tuesday.
”Everything they do every day is what this means, they work so hard every day,” said head coach Laurie Cersosimo of her Red Wolves team, which will meet Simsbury in their first ever appearance in the CCC final.
It was a bit of a nervous start for both clubs in the first quarter – missing shots and turning the ball over. It wasn’t until 2:10 in when Emily Knowles hit a free throw that the game had its first point. In fact, Knowles – who led all scorers with 19 points – scored the first four points of the game all from the free throw line.
The 18-4 Panthers were getting some good looks, but just could not get the ball to fall. Conard used a pressure defense, especially when the ball went down low, to make up for a very big size difference.
Senior Tatiana Harrison played a strong inside game and her coach was quick to praise her after the win. “Tatiana kept them out of there. She just doesn’t give up,” said Cersosimo. On offense, Callie Cosgrove (13 points) scored the only two baskets in the first quarter and Conard had a 10-0 lead after the opening 8:00.
Smith would get its first basket and points of the game 32 seconds into the second period when Madison Hughes scored for the Panthers. They would score the games next four points, before Cosgrove’s two shots from the charity stripe made it 12-6 Conard halfway into the period.
In the second, it was Conard that began having trouble getting the shots to fall and they did not score a basket from the field until Knowles’ score with 2:30 left on the clock. Turnovers plagued both squads again in the second period with a number of traveling calls being whistled. Knowles would hit on a baseline drive before the end of the half and the Red Wolves held the 17-8 lead.
“Smith is a really good team with a veteran coach, Cersosimo said. “Each team went on runs.”
Conard came out with a fire in its belly to start the second half. Knowles hit a 3 off a Smith turnover, she followed it with another hoop, and then fed Courtney McPhee for the basket on a 2-on-1 break to give Conard a 24-8 lead just 1:55 into the third. After a timeout, the Panthers regrouped and started the first of several second-half runs.
With Smith pushing the pressure, Conard did not score another basket until Cosgrove scored with 21.1 seconds to go. The lead for the Red Wolves was 10 after three periods, with a trip to the CCC finals just 8:00 away.
In the fourth, Conard kept a 10-point lead, 30-20, but began missing shots and turning the ball over. This time E.O. Smith took advantage and chipped away at the deficit, getting it down to six points with 4:38 to play.
The next seven Conard possessions ended without the Red Wolves scoring a point. There were two traveling calls, two missed free throws on the front end of 1 and 1’s, a blocked shot, and a pair of turnovers. When Smith’s Lilliana Clark scored on a third chance for the Panthers with 1:20 to play, it was 30-26 Conard.
For Conard, the path to victory and a trip to the finals was going to go through the free throw line as Smith was fouling each possession. Cosgrove dropped two straight from the line, but with 28.6 to go Hughes rolled in her first free throw before missing the second.
Smith got the rebound but missed a 3 to tie the game. Harrison would hit one of two free throws with 23.2 to play, before Smith’s Hughes hit a lay-in to make it a two-point game with 10.5 to play. One the next possession, Conard got the ball to Cosgrove who was intentionally fouled and calmly stepped to the line and hit two clutch free throws to put the Red Wolves up 35-31.
Smith would inbound the ball but not get a good look at the basket and the clock ran down to zero.
“We did a good job of not getting frazzled when they came back,” said Cosgrove, a sophomore for Conard.
“We knew it would be hard,” said Knowles. “We just had a lot of energy all game.”
The Red Wolves were knocked out of the CCC Tournament in 2020 by E.O. Smith, but with the Tuesday night win, they not only avenged that loss but they also posted the most wins (19) by a Conard girls basketball team since 1983. They will have a chance for a 20-win season, and a CCC Championship on Thursday night at UHart.
“It feels good to get to the championship with a chance to win,” said McPhee, who Cersosimo describes as the heart of this year’s team. To win the title, Conard will have to defeat a Simsbury squad that handed the Red Wolves two of its four losses this season.
McPhee, Cosgrove, and Knowles – all sophomores – were all named to the All-Conference team for the CCC-West Division from Conard in-between the night’s two semifinal games.
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