For the first 14 minutes of Friday’s CIAC Class LL second-round game against visiting East Catholic, Mercy-Middletown girls basketball coach Tim Kohs was more than justified in his statement a week earlier that the Eagles would present a tough match-up for his team. East Catholic led by three points and showed no signs of the sluggishness that punctuated much of its first-round victory Tuesday over Norwalk.
Then, abruptly, East Catholic’s crisp play disappeared, Mercy found itself and Kohs’s concerns began to fade. Once the momentum turned, the Eagles had few bold responses.
The Tigers went on a run in the final two minutes of the first half for a seven-point lead, then kept rolling at the start of the second half and advanced to the quarterfinals with a 63-36 win that ended the season for East Catholic (16-8). Mercy (22-2), seeded second, will meet No. 10 Lauralton Hall-Milford, which advanced with a 43-38 win over Newtown, on March 10 in Middletown.
Mercy, which beat East Catholic in overtime on Dec. 30, was led by a career-high 23 points from sophomore guard Maria Weselyj, ordinarily the Tigers third-most productive scorer behind Amber Bepko and Sadie Edwards. Bepko added 18 points and Edwards had 12. Weselyj made four three-pointers.
Junior Nicole Ferguson had 15 points to pace No. 15 East Catholic, which erased a 9-7 deficit after the first quarter to take a 19-16 lead with 2:34 remaining in the first half. Taryn Roy scored nine points and Loren Pachesa added seven.
“We stopped defending,” East Catholic coach Al Lewis said about the turning point, when Mercy seized control at the end of the first half. “We made some really poor decisions defensively and they capitalized. That 10-0 run really killed us. We made mistakes and they got hot. It all sort of folded-up on us.”
Mercy’s 26-19 halftime lead grew to 34-19, wrapping up the combined 18-0 run, before Roy made a foul shot 2:45 into the third quarter. The Tigers picked back up after that by closing out the quarter on a 13-4 spree for a 47-24 advantage entering the fourth quarter. The fourth quarter began with an East Catholic shot being blocked. The third quarter had begun with the Eagles missing two back-door layups in the opening 1:41 of the second half, by which time the deficit had reached 30-19 on an Edwards foul shot and three-pointer by Weselyj off an offensive rebound.
“The key to the game was the last couple of minutes of the first half,” Kohs said.“They had a couple of turnovers and we scored some quick baskets. That really got us a little bit of confidence."
“The third quarter was just a continuation of how we ended the first half. We got comfortable and got them out of their comfort zone," Kohs continued. "We ratched-up the defense there in hopes of getting some turnovers.”
Once Mercy began to turn it around, East Catholic didn’t take care of the ball, its shots failed to go in and the defense lost its edge. Upon facing that 19-16 deficit, Mercy outscored East Catholic by 47-17 the rest of the game.
“We weren’t making plays to lift each other up,” Lewis said. “It kept cascading on us.”
East Catholic was 5-for-18 from the floor in the second half, for a 27.8 percentage. For the game, the Eagles shot 12 of 35 (34.2 percent). When they went on a 13-7 run, covering the end of the first quarter and the opening 5:26 of the second quarter, for their 19-16 lead, they were 5 of 8 from the floor. East Catholic was 6 of 12 from the foul line in the second half.
Mercy had won 21 in a row before losing to Hillhouse-New Haven on Feb. 22 in the SCC tournament final, its most recent game before Friday. The Tigers, Class LL runners-up in 2009-10, had a bye in the first round.