Knowles leads the way with 24 points.
By Paul Palmer
The Conard girls basketball team continued its run towards the CIAC final with a 46-27 win over New Britain Friday night in West Hartford.
The Red Wolves were led by sophomores Emily Knowles, who scored 24 points, and Callie Cosgrove, who added 13 for the No. 7 seed Red Wolves. “Going to the quarterfinals feels really good. I am so proud of these girls,” said head coach Laurie Cersosimo.
This year’s team is Conard’s first in 44 years to make the quarterfinals and the win over the 10th-seeded Golden Hurricanes on Friday was the team’s 21st on the season. Only the 1978-79 team that won the state title won more games – with 24 victories.
New Britain started the game using their physical play and crisp passing to jump out to a quick 7-2 lead. When Knowles hit a 3, and then a basket it was a tied game at 7-7 with 2:26 to go. Cersosimo wasn’t ready to chalk up the slow start entirely to nerves. “Despite how hard they work they are young girls and people forget that,” said the coach. “There was a big crowd tonight and a lot of noise and we were playing a very good New Britain team.”
Conard took a 9-7 lead into the second quarter, but New Britain stormed back to tie things at 11 when Janessa Yaconiello scored. Courtney McPhee (6 points) gave the home side the lead at 13-11 with her layup, and Cosgrove drained her first 3 of the night to make it a 16-13 lead with 3:39 to go.
Conard once again used a full court press on defense, forcing New Britain into several turnovers, but when they held onto the ball, senior Tiajah Cooper was pounding the offensive boards helping the visitors get second chances. Knowles would score Conard’s final seven points of the half with a step back jumper, a fast break lay in, and a 3-pointer to make it 23-15 at intermission.
Knowles was also a force on the boards and on defense for Conard in playing one of her best games of the year. “I just tell myself to play the game,” she said of her approach. “It’s just a game every time out there.”
Cersosimo’ s team made a statement to open the second half, going on a 9-0 run to start the third. Once again it was the combination of Knowles, McPhee, and Cosgrove getting the shots to fall.
New Britain made a small run, but a hustle play from McPhee ended that. She drove into the lane but was cut off. She dribbled back out, circled the foul line, and drove to the hoop drawing a foul and giving Conard the 33-21 lead.
It was in the third that Conard started to dominate the rebounding game behind senior Tatiana Harrison, Knowles and McPhee.”I just play to the end,” said Harrison one of two starting seniors for Conard. “Against a physical team, that just keeps me going.”
Knowles added a pair of standout plays as the third was ending – first pressuring the inbound pass, stealing the ball, and getting the basket as she was fouled. Then with just 43.6 to play, she grabbed a long rebound off a missed Red Wolves shot, she put her shoulder down and drove to the hoop to make it 37-21 after three.
Knowles led all scorers after the third with 22 points. “Emily is dangerous as she does everything asked of her on both sides of the court,” said Cersosimo. “And she is an amazing person.” Over the last two seasons Knowles has played in three state tournament games and has scored 20 or more points in each game.
Even with the comfortable lead, Conard continued to pressure and play its game. Cosgrove chased down a New Britain player as she crossed midcourt with the ball. She knocked the ball away then chased it down. Her hard work was rewarded when she found herself paying off the play with a lay in at the other end to make it a 20-point game.
Once again Conard managed to build a big enough lead that Cersosimo could rest her staters late in the game and empty her bench to give all her players the experience of playing in the tournament. “It takes an entire team to get the win,” Cersosimo said. “The players in the game, the players on the bench, the managers, I couldn’t be more proud.”
The game marked just the second time that Conard has hosted a second-round game since 2019, and for Harrison it was great to play what were probably her final two games at Conard in the playoffs. “I’ve never made it this far,” she said. “We knew from the beginning of the season that this is a special team.”
Her teammate Knowles echoed the sentiment and attributed the team’s success so far to hard work and teamwork. “We all play roles on the team and when we play together we are good,” said the sophomore. Knowles’ game-high 24 points was just eight shy of the schools all-time record for points in a single CIAC playoff game.
The Red Wolves will be back in action Wednesday when they travel to unbeaten No. 2 seed Fairfield-Ludlowe. Cersosimo knows it will be a tall task to knock off the Falcons on their home court, but she knows there is a path to victory.
“We have a few things to tighten up,” she said. “We just need to play Conard basketball.”
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