Amber Bepko and the rest of the Mercy basketball team overcame some early jitters and moved one step closer to handling some unfinished business.
Bepko scored 21 points and Maria Wesley added 15 as No. 2-seeded Mercy advanced to the CIAC Class LL championship game with a 64-47 victory over sixth-seeded Glastonbury Monday night at Mark T. Sheehan High School in Wallingford.
Jordyn Nappi had 13 points for the Tigers (22-1), who fell behind 7-0 early and then took control with a game-changing 18-1 run that bridged the first and second quarters.
Mercy, ranked No. 2 in the Hartford Courant’s top 10 poll, advances to face Career of New Haven in the championship game this weekend at Mohegan Sun (the date and time is TBA).
“It’s pretty exciting,” Bepko said. “It’s overwhelming. It’s been one of our goals since the beginning of the season. I want to get back there and win it.”
Early on, though, it didn’t look like the Tigers would be making the 45-mile trip to Uncasville, where their season ended in heart-breaking fashion a year ago.
A packed house sat in stunned silence as Glastonbury (21-3) asserted itself in the opening minutes. In that same time, the Tigers were busy tripping over their own two feet. Mercy went 0-for-3 from the field and turned the ball over three times in its first six possessions.
“I think a lot of it was the nerves,” Bepko said. “We are a young team. I figured that’s what it was from the beginning.”
The Tigers didn’t score until Wesley hit a layup with 4:36 left in the first. Mercy coach Tim Kohs may have the only person in the building not on edge.
“I wasn’t really nervous because we’ve had some games where we (are winning) 10-0 and the game’s not over. We’ve been down 8-0,” he said. “We were getting good shots, they just weren’t going in and sometimes that is nerves.”
Mercy shook off those jitters and promptly grabbed the lead for good late in the first quarter. Nappi had bookend 3-pointers during the momentum-changing run, which gave the Tigers an 18-8 that ballooned into a 32-18 halftime advantage.
"Once we started getting in the flow of things we started making shots and we started playing better defense. We just took off from there," Bepko said.
“We weathered the storm, because we were down 7-0 and then it was an 18-1 run back, so we’ll take those numbers any time,” Kohs said.
Mercy was able to build a sizable lead because it held Glastonbury star guard Cara Manfredi, who scored 25 points in a quarterfinal win over Manchester, to 13 points.
“Our key was, 'Don't let Manfredi get going making threes,'" Kohs said. “I thought we did a really good job on her. Looking at their boxscores, when she makes threes they score 75 points; when she doesn’t, they don’t score as much.”
That was never more evident than in the first half, when the Tomahawks' hot start became a distant memory. Glastonbury went more than seven minutes without a field goal.
“We are a team that likes to get up and down, try to get in the flow, and that was not the case,” Glastonbury coach Brian Fleming said. “We had quick possessions and they dragged them out. They did a good job and they were definitely a better team tonight.”
The Tomahawks made a push in the second half and cut a 14-point deficit to eight twice but couldn’t get any closer.
“We couldn't quite get it under eight, (and) that changes things,” Fleming said. “Then we had to go chasing around too much towards the end.”
The Tomahawks' season is over. The Tigers, meanwhile, are hoping their season doesn’t end in heartbreak again.
Mercy lost the title game to Norwich Free Academy 50-47 last year after a game-tying 3-pointer at the buzzer rolled out.
“I’m sure they are motivated, but you should be motivated every year to win games,” Kohs said. “It’s a great atmosphere down there. It’s fun to get there and it’s a nice spot to be, but we have to win one more game to make it worthwhile.”