NFA girls beat Bacon to win ECC Division I basketball title
Mohegan — Norwich Free Academy coach Courtney Gomez stood in front of her team's bench before Tuesday night's championship game and proclaimed herself much more at ease than she had been going into the semifinals just a few days prior.
Getting to Mohegan Sun Arena, where the drumbeat of the music playing on the public address system was in honor of Eastern Connecticut Conference girls' basketball for the first time in history, was the nerve-wracking part, she said.
"I told them after the East Lyme game (in the semis), 'Take a deep breath. The pressure is off,'" Gomez said. "I've just been much more relaxed."
Once NFA arrived, it proved — quite thoroughly, too — that it belonged under the neon lights.
Makayla Poirier-Vaughters finished with 24 points, 14 in the first half, and top-seeded NFA defeated No. 3 Bacon Academy 58-30 in the ECC Division I tournament championship game before 2,253 fans at Mohegan Sun.
Poirier-Vaughters, the Wildcats' 6-foot senior center, was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player, joined on the all-tournament team by NFA's Jenissa Varela and Sarah Ericson, Bacon's Cassidy LaSaracina and East Lyme's Sophie Dubreuil.
"It just meant so much for us. I feel electric," said Poirier-Vaughters, who conducted interviews postgame while toting around her outstanding player trophy. "It's great to beat a great team."
"I was really excited this morning," Ericson said. "As we were pulling up to the gym, I was a little nervous, good nervous. ... (Playing at Mohegan Sun), it feels like the whole arena is coming down on you."
While NFA, 19-4 and ranked No. 4 in the state, needed overtime to beat East Lyme in the semifinals Saturday, with that game tied 47-47 after regulation, the Wildcats needed nothing so extreme on Tuesday as they faced seventh-ranked Bacon Academy in a matchup between two of the top 10 teams in the GameTimeCT state poll.
Playing the second game of an ECC championship doubleheader, with Killingly claiming the Division II tournament crown before NFA took the floor, the Wildcats finished the first quarter on a 17-1 run.
Having previously trailed 5-4, NFA got seven points during that span from Ericson, including a 3-pointer which took the path of a rainbow, and went on to lead 21-6 after the first quarter and 39-14 at halftime.
Varela finished with 10 points for NFA, which captured its first ECC tournament title since winning five straight under legendary coach Bill Scarlata from 2012-16. Eleven different players scored for the Wildcats.
Bacon (19-4) was the tournament's runner-up for the second straight season after falling last year to New London. The Bobcats knocked New London, the three-time defending champion, out of this year's tournament, winning their semifinal game with the Whalers 56-38 Saturday.
But, playing without starter Valerie Luizzi, who is likely out for the season with a fractured wrist, Bacon wasn't as fortunate in the final, finishing with just seven field goals. Sophomores Caitlin Shea and Emma Mancuso had eight points each for the Bobcats.
It was the third matchup of the season for the finalists, which split during the regular season. NFA won 46-28 on Jan. 24 at NFA, while Bacon responded with a 53-52 victory Feb. 14 in Colchester, with the Wildcats missing Poirier-Vaughters for that game due to a concussion.
This time, Poirier-Vaughters scored on an offensive rebound just 1 minute, 44 seconds into the game and never stopped, stringing together a variety of dominant post moves until departing the game with 2:11 remaining into the arms of Gomez.
"I was just trying to get inside to rebound," Poirier-Vaughters said. "Rebounding is the most important part of the game."
Gomez, a 2004 NFA graduate who won a pair of state titles under Scarlata and later played at the University of Hartford, never had the opportunity to compete on the floor at Mohegan Sun.
She called Tuesday the proudest moment in her first season as the Wildcats head coach.
"I enjoyed myself just watching them be so happy at the end," Gomez said. "All the emotions, all the hard times, the ups and downs. It's not easy. You were once in their shoes. You have to like the student support, the cheerleaders, the dance team, we feed off their energy.
"This is kind of cool."
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