Conard sophomore Azaiyah Felder scored 26 points off the bench to lead the Chieftains past an improved Northwest Catholic team on Friday night.
By Marlon Pitter
It didn’t take long for Azaiyah Felder to make a difference for Conard.
Coming off the bench five minutes into the game, Felder put her athleticism and aggressiveness to work against Northwest Catholic, making an “immediate impact.” Along with strong rebounding, passing, and forcing turnovers, she led the Chieftains with a game-high 26 points in a 57-46 win over the Lions Friday night in West Hartford.
“She’s a unique talent,” said Conard head coach Mike D’Angelo. “When she keeps her head in the game and she’s playing under control … and being the best player on the floor – offensively, defensively, distributing the ball – I’ve never seen anyone better at this level … at her age, not even 16 yet.”
When Felder didn’t attack the basket herself, she found teammates for scoring opportunities as well. Her inside presence helped set up Meghann Morhardt and Jessica McNally, who scored 17 and seven points respectively.
Down 30-28 at the half, Felder scored Conard’s first four points of the third quarter to tie the game at 32. She followed with a pair of free throws to put the Chieftains ahead 34-32 halfway through the period.
Felder gave Conard (11-8) a double-digit lead at 42-32, but Erin Carucci, who scored a team-high 15 points, went on a 5-0 run of her own to keep Northwest Catholic (7-12) in the game.
The Chieftains took a 44-38 lead into the final quarter.
While Conard’s defense stymied Northwest Catholic’s offense in the final eight minutes, Felder showed no intention of slowing down. She scored eight points in the fourth quarter, including a pair of free throws to bring the score to 55-42 with 2:55 remaining, tying the team’s largest lead of the game.
The Lions chipped away with a 4-0 run before the two-minute mark but failed to draw any closer.
D’Angelo said he was pleased by the team’s defensive effort in the second half.
“Our commitment to the defensive end tonight – [Northwest Catholic] scored 20 points in the first quarter. We held them to 26 in three,” he said. “That’s what we talked about in every dead ball: Limit them to one shot. Get stops on defense.
“When we get stops on defense and we’re in transition with Azaiyah and Ella [DiPippo] and Meg spotting up, that’s our game.”
With Felder on the bench, Morhardt scored the first seven points for the Chieftains to open the game on a 7-2 run. The Lions responded quickly with a 10-0 run of their own, including two 3-pointers from Morgan Murphy before Felder took the floor.
Northwest Catholic led 19-13 after one quarter.
The teams traded baskets early in the second quarter, but Conard gained momentum over the last five minutes of the half. The Chieftains tied the game at 28, but Northwest Catholic regained control with 32 seconds remaining to take a two-point lead into the break.
Along with Carucci, Caroline Rutenberg scored in double figures for Northwest Catholic with 11 points. The two juniors have been instrumental in a turnaround season during Lions head coach Al Phillips’ first year at the helm.
“I think having two players like that … it’s a totally different team,” said Phillips. “They bring a lot more energy to the team, and for junior players, they’re still learning too. They have good basketball instincts, and I hope they keep improving.”
The Lions will finish the regular season at Southington (5-14) on Monday with a chance to earn a state tournament berth.
For Conard, its attention turns to Hall (11-8) and not needing another improbable comeback against the Warriors to finish off the regular season Monday night. D’Angelo said managing emotions in the crosstown rivalry game will be just as important as the strategy itself.
“It’s a big emotional night,” D’Angelo said. “It’s our last game here on this floor. It’s their seniors’ last Hall-Conard game. That game is all about emotion. The roller coaster of emotions last time we played them was remarkable. It’s going to be the team that holds them in check and just plays basketball.”
As Northwest Catholic improves, meanwhile, D’Angelo said he believes the Lions will continue to be a formidable opponent and even more of a rival in the future. The teams split their season series, each winning at home.
“They’re on the up-and-coming,” he said. “They’ve got a couple good freshmen that are big, and it looks like it’s going to blossom into something special for the next couple of years.”
— Marlon Pitter (@marlonpresents) February 9, 2019
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