Rams get easy win over once-dominant Warde

Correspondent

FAIRFIELD -- What a difference a year can make.

Last season, Warde was the feared team and the model in which New Canaan could look to for direction in how to build its program.

But Friday night, New Canaan showed the Mustangs something about winning, as the girls basketball team played one of its best defensive games of the season and, in doing so, had one of its highest point totals of the campaign.

The Rams broke open a close game in the second quarter to pull away for a 61-34 win over Fairfield Warde to carry a 13-4 record into this week's action. Warde dropped to 6-10 overall and was eliminated from FCIAC playoff contention.

Sarah Mannelly scored 19 points, including seven unanswered during one stretch, to lead the Rams. Kacey Pippitt scored 13, Erin Fessler and Ali Warlich both had seven, Courtney Rogers dropped in six, Melissa Tweed scored five and Christina Loop added four.

The Rams led 11-9 after one quarter but seized control of the game by outscoring the host Mustangs 23-6 in the second quarter for a commanding 34-15 lead at the half.

In that game-changing quarter the Rams built double-digit lead quickly thanks to several fast-break baskets, which were caused by turnovers.

"I think it was one of the best games we've played this season," Warlich said.

Warlich converted a steal into a lay-in for a 17-9 lead just 2:09 into the quarter, prompting a Warde timeout. But the Mustangs couldn't find a way to break through and the Rams opened the quarter with 10 straight points. Warlich came up with a steal on the defensive end, then dove to the floor to keep the ensuing offensive possession alive and, as if that wasn't enough, proceeded to sink a long-range field goal for a 21-9 cushion, leading to another Warde timeout.

"We wanted to go hard on defense to create turnovers to force the fast break," Mannelly said.

After the Mustangs got the deficit back to single digits. New Canaan's Mannelly stole the show with three straight baskets, including a 3-pointer for a 30-15 advantage with 1:30 left in the opening half. After Rogers scored Mannelly beat the buzzer for a 19-point bulge with the teams going into the locker room.

It was more of the same in the second half -- strong defense leading to points at the other end of the court and keeping the Mustangs from mounting any sort of comeback.

"We played really well on defense and then our offense just came with it," Loop said.

That was the game plan.

"Defense is really our main focus," New Canaan coach Kim Palmer said. "When we're defensively sound our offense builds off of that."

The Rams won their second straight game after tough 35-29 loss to St. Joseph on Jan. 29 in which the team turned the ball over nearly 30 times. It was a different story last week against a former FCIAC powerhouse.

New Canaan had beaten Bridgeport Central 53-45 on Feb. 2, and the Rams hope to carry over this success into their remaining games as the postseason draws closer.

"We had a little setback against St. Joe's, so to come out and show up like we know how to play is a really good feeling," Pippitt said of the team's effort in the last couple of wins.

Palmer added that the team learned from the St. Joseph game that, on defense, the players needed to be on the same page as far as when to help out and double team and where to be positionally.

"We took some things from that -- made some adjustments, and I think it showed tonight," the coach said.

Not that the Rams ever doubted their ability but, after the St. Joe's setback ended a seven-game winning streak, the girls are happy to get that winning feeling back with only a handful of games remaining before the playoffs get underway. The Rams had a season-best 63 points in a win over Harding back in December. During a seven-game winning steak they had four victories by 10 points or less, proving they can win some tight battles but the triumph over Warde felt good for New Canaan.

"Any win is a confidence booster," Palmer said.

Following Tuesday's scheduled game with Brien McMahon (after press time) the Rams will host Westhill on Thursday at 7 pm and close out the regular season at Trumbull on Feb. 17.