By MICHAEL LETENDRE
PLAINVILLE – The Berlin girls basketball team hasn’t had to sweat out too many wins this season.
But on Plainville’s senior night – the Blue Devils’ final game of the regular season – the Redcoats were nearly pushed to the brink and not only had to sweat more than a little but battle for their basketball lives.
Only one team had hung a loss on Berlin this year and if it weren’t for several clutch baskets down the stretch, that number might have changed to two after the Plainville game.
However, Berlin hung on in the end and picked up a 59-53 CCC South victory from the Ivan Wood Gymnasium in Plainville on Wednesday, Feb. 13.
The win propelled the Redcoats to an outstanding 19-1 ledger and a perfect 14-0 mark in CCC South play.
The Blue Devils finished the season at 10-10 and for the second straight season have qualified for state tournament play.
Defense fueled the day for Plainville as Berlin shot less than 40 percent from the field while the Blue Devils forced the visitors into a number of ill-advised turnovers early into things.
“I think our improvement that we’ve shown from the beginning of the season and the first time we’ve played Berlin to now is substantial and I give credit where credit is due,” said Plainville coach Jen Micowski. “Our defense really picked it up a notch. We put in a three-quarters court press in pretty much a week and the kids came out and really executed it well tonight.”
Plainville moved the ball very well throughout the showdown, attacked the hoop with ruthless aggression, and displayed high energy throughout the fray.
And with senior night at hand – honoring Kelley Slabinski, Carly Martino, Abby Nigro, Sarah Caron, Kiera Jackson, and Katy Dressel – there was a little extra incentive to beat the Redcoats that evening.
“It’s senior night and everybody has those special emotions starting the seniors and the tributes we did before the game fuels the fires,” said Micowski. “It was an easy reason to have the energy but we kept it from start to finish today and that’s something we’ve struggled with from time to time.”
“In some cases, we didn’t start with it…other cases, we didn’t finish with but I think today, we had energy from start to finish.”
Foul trouble zapped the Blue Devils’ outstanding front-court of Katy Dressel and Kelsey Clemens throughout the game but when on the floor, the duo gave Berlin plenty of problems, inside and out.
Dressel ended the game with a team high 19 points – hitting seven of ten field goals – while also tallying seven rebounds.
The slick Clemens had another double-double, scooping up 10 points and a game high 15 rebounds.
Carly Martino also played well by adding eight points – including two three-pointers – to go along with six assists while teammate Deja Nolan hit several clutch shots off the bench as her eight points, five rebounds, and numerous assists were critical in keeping the home team in the game.
Along with Slabinski, Carly Martino and Dressel, Caron and Negro each started the game for Plainville on senior night.
Paige Young led Berlin with 19 points and 11 rebounds while Ashley Malloy added 12 points and seven rebounds in the winning effort.
But the game was up for grabs from the start and with 96 seconds remaining in the showdown, the Blue Devils trailed by only a single point at 51-50.
Eight lead changes and 10 ties highlighted a back-and-forth affair and as Plainville trailed 6-4 early on into things, the home team went on the attack.
Off the power of a 12-5 run, the Blue Devils snatched a 16-11 push with 1:11 left to play in the first frame.
Berlin came storming back but off a last second jumper by Nolan, Plainville led 18-17 after one period of play.
The Redcoats struck back in the second frame and off a blazing three-pointer by Kailene Rampone, made it a 30-25 contest in Berlin’s favor with 2:11 left to play before the half.
But Plainville ended the tilt with a 5-0 jaunt as a huge three-pointer by Nolan – off a sweet feed from Stephanie Martino – found its mark and Slabinski slid in a lay-up to end the scoring as both squads were knotted at 30-30 to begin intermission.
Plainville was shooting 50 percent from the field at the half and rode that hot hand into the third period as a 7-2 push – highlighted by two hoops from Dressel and a big three from Clemens – as the Blue Devils’ edge grew to 37-32 with 6:07 left in the frame.
Berlin reclaimed the lead off a 7-0 run but Plainville fired right back as another lay up by Dressel plus an additional three-pointer from Nolan saw the home team reclaim the edge and went into the final stanza ahead by one at 42-41.
Rachel Lancaster opened up the final period with a huge three-pointer as Plainville surged in front 45-41 early into things.
The Blue Devils couldn’t sustain that momentum and off a 10-2 jaunt by Berlin, the visitors retook the lead off two backdoor plays as Malloy found Young for two consecutive lay-ups as the Redcoats lead grew to 51-47 with 2:05 remaining.
Plainville made one more run at it and Nolan found Carly Martino for a long three-pointer and suddenly, the Blue Devils trailed just 51-50 with over a minute-and-a-half to go.
But Plainville could not get any closer as another backdoor play from half-court found Malloy for a quick lay-up and the lead grew to three with 1:28 left.
The Blue Devils were forced to play the foul game the rest of the way but the squad made six out of its next seven attempts and with 36.5 seconds left to play, Plainville was down seven and could only chip one point off the lead before eventually falling 59-53.
However, compared to Plainville’s first game at Berlin – a contest in which the Blue Devils were blown out of by a 47-29 final – there’s been obvious improvement by the home team.
“We’ve come a long way and it shows,” said Micowski. “It was not an easy win for (Berlin) to come out of our gym with. Yes, they did execute down the stretch and good job to them because that’s what makes them the number one team in the conference.”
Now, with the regular season over and done with, Plainville’s focus turns to the postseason and a trip to the state tournament for the second straight campaign.
“I think people forget sometimes that we’re a (class) M school and one of the only M schools in the CCC,” said Micowski. “And for us to compete on a nightly basis with Class L and LL schools, I give a lot of credit to the kids for fighting and never giving up, basically taking what I give them and making it work.”
Last year, Plainville upset Ansonia 44-42 in overtime and that victory came against one of the very good squads of the Naugatuck Valley League.
If you underestimate the Blue Devils, be prepared to pay the same price Ansonia (and almost Cromwell) did last season.
“We’re all on the same page and it’s good going into the state tournament because I don’t think many Class M schools really know about what kind of (competition) we play,” said Micowski. “They’re going to see us at 10-10, middle of the road at .500 and hopefully look past us and I think it’s something we can take advantage of.”
By MICHAEL LETENDRE