Team advances to second round of state tournament

mnorlander@bcnnew.com

After close-range misses by Christina Loop and Erin Fessler, Kasey Pippitt grabbed an offensive rebound and passed it to the top of the key, where a wide-open Sarah Mannelly was waiting.

Mannelly made no hesitation, put up the shot and watched as it flirted with the iron, touching the rim five or six times before falling in to give the Rams a 17-7 lead with 5:15 to go in the second quarter.

That play, like many, had the Darien girls basketball team chasing. The Blue Wave could never catch up, and the Rams, who lost in overtime at home (71-68) to Darien on Dec. 16, got revenge at New Canaan High School Monday night. No. 12 New Canaan's 59-51 win over 21st-ranked Darien in the first round of the Class L bracket sets up a matchup against 20-1, No. 5 Pomperaug tonight at 7 p.m. at Pomperaug High School; Pomperaug eliminated No. 28 seed Fairfield Warde 62-36 Monday.

Rams (16-5) head coach Kim Palmer didn't need to talk to her team about any motivation. The memories from the loss to an archrival still lingered two and a half months after the fact.

"My team went in there tonight with some unfinished business," she said. "Darien took advantage [of us] at the beginning of the season and they held on to that all season long."

New Canaan's sense of purpose was clear from the opening tip, as the Rams led 14-5 after one period, 35-21 at halftime and 44-33 after three quarters. Fessler said the primary focus heading into this game was to not repeat the mistake the Rams have made more times than they'd like to admit.

"We're a team that tends to come out weak and then get ourselves in a hole and have to dig ourselves out," Fessler said. "But we came out, won the first quarter, which was a big deal for us."

Fessler, who's been playing with a torn labrum for nearly a year and will need surgery after lacrosse season ends, said Darien (11-10) never truly went away because of its depth.

"I think one of our biggest problems was, they subbed a lot and we didn't," Fessler said. "We primarily have [six] players who play ... but it was mostly a running game, so toward the end we started to get tired."

Darien's coach said he knew exactly why his team couldn't play a complete game.

"I think the layoff killed us," Gary Peterson said. "We had one scrimmage and it wasn't enough."

The Blue Wave just missed qualifying for the FCIAC playoffs and had not played since Feb. 17. A scheduled scrimmage against Hamden High on Feb 26 was cancelled due to snow.

"We were rusty. We came out a step slow," Peterson continued. "And playing in New Canaan's gym didn't make it any easier."

New Canaan, meanwhile, seemed to have gained confidence from playing a pair of FCIAC playoff contests. The Rams beat Stamford before losing in the semifinals to eventual FCIAC champ St. Joseph last Thursday.

Mannelly had a team-high 19 points and Pippitt, who scored 12 in the first half, helped keep Darien at bay almost from the get-go.

"I think it's part of the Darien-New Canaan rivalry," Mannelly said. "Everyone just goes all out in those games."

Although New Canaan had 10 steals, it also turned the ball over 18 times. Bodies hit the floor nearly as frequently as shots went in the hoop, and nobody sacrificed themselves more than Ali Warlich, who could frequently be seen diving out of bounds to save a possession for the Rams.

"I hate to say it was sloppy, but we were all over the place," Palmer said. "Offensively and defensively, both Darien and us -- but it was a fight to the finish."

Warlich scored nine points and Loop added eight in the paint. Because of that, even New Canaan's reserves saw some time near the end of the second half.

"The girls worked hard to get a good lead so I could get some of the younger players who've worked so hard all season and haven't really had an opportunity to get on the court," Palmer said.

This was, very likely, the final home game for New Canaan seniors Pippitt, Warlich, Fessler and Bridget O'Leary.

"We've definitely developed so much over this season," Fessler said. "But we came into this game being like, `We lost to them the first time. We CAN'T lose again. We need to prove to them that we are the better team."

The only dose of bad new for the Rams came in the second half, when freshman reserve Courtney Rogers was trapped in the corner and turned her left knee. The extent of her injury isn't known, but it's very possible she could miss the rest of the playoffs.

Darien was hampered by New Canaan's rebounding (the Rams held a 41-23 edge) all game.

"We got outrebounded. We didn't hit the boards like we should have," Peterson said.

That led to a strong transition game, which a forte of Mannelly's and Pippitt's play.

"That's one of the things we excel at," Palmer said. "Specifically, because we have Sarah and Kasey and they run the floor so well. ... When we can run and push the floor, we get some easy baskets. Darien, though, they transitioned well tonight and we got beat a few times."

"I think both teams have similar style of play," Mannelly said. "I think we came out really energized and just wanted it more."

For Darien, seniors Liz Calby (12 points), Leanne Stone, Taylor Wells and AnnaRae Anderson have closed out their Blue Wave basketball careers.

However, junior guard Nicole Buch (game-high 26 points; 13 in the final two minutes) leads a host of Darien returnees for next year.

Calby gave it her all today, and we were rusty," Peterson said. "We were playing a team at home who has confidence, it's tough."