By Chris Elsberry

FAIRFIELD — Libby McKenna’s only basket of the game turned out to be the biggest.

The Warde senior took an outlet pass off a turnover at midcourt and outraced two St. Joseph defenders to the basket to score with 61 seconds left to play to give the Mustangs a three-point lead and Caroline Aufiero added three crucial free throws in the final 36 seconds as Warde held off a heroic upset bid by the Cadets, winning 55-51 Tuesday night at the Mustangs gym.

“We’ve been doing this all year and I’m really proud of them. They didn’t give up,” Cadets coach Chris Lindwall said. “They responded, which is what we’ve been doing all season. This is our fourth game (losing) by four now, we’ve had the lead, but we just can’t finish the game. We’re making some young mistakes, silly mistakes.”

St. Joseph lost its third straight to drop to 2-7 on the season but it was the fourth time the Cadets lost by seven points or less. They are a team without with just two seniors and started Tuesday’s game against the Mustangs with four juniors and a sophomore.

“We’re just trying to find the right fit to where we are,” Lindwall said. “Everyone did what we wanted them to do for three quarters of the game.”

Warde hadn’t played a game since losing to Staples in the finals of the Todd Berger Christmas tournament on December 29 and it showed in the first half against St. Joseph. Not only did the Mustangs miss eight free throws in the first half, they missed the first 11 shots they took — many from point blank range — as the Cadets took a 20-19 lead into the locker room at halftime.

“In the first half, they definitely pressured us a lot more … we hadn’t played in 12 days so we were rusty, but I credit them a lot, they played us so tough,” Warde forward Olivia Parisi said, who led the way for the Mustangs with 22 points. “They covered the middle which is kind of our strong point, they did a good job with that.”

To the point where, with 3:49 left in the third quarter, St. Joseph held a 35-27 lead.

That’s when Warde’s defense finally changed the game.

The Mustangs put together a 17-2 quarter-ending run, sparked by a pair of 3-pointers from Toni Lamparski, to head into the final eight minutes with a 44-37 lead.

“I had to protect the kids with the fouls trouble we had so we kept changing defenses, our diamond, our pressure, out run and jump, we did our multiple defenses and the bench stepped up,” Warde coach Dave Danko said. “Toni made a couple of huge three’s, the kids on the bench stepped up and did some things and that’s the sign of a good playoff team.”

“We went into the locker room at halftime and we were like, the rust is all off us now, we’re going to come out and play with same intensity they were playing with and go farther,” Parisi said. “We had some huge plays from people on the bench, Toni made some huge 3’s at crucial times, it was a team effort.”

Despite the quarter-ending run by Warde, St. Joseph refused to go away, pulling within 50-49 with 1:34 left on a basket by Emma Elrod, but McKenna’s big basket and Aufiero’s free throws locked down the victory.

“We didn’t answer the bell against their pressure,” Lindwall said. “Dave did a nice job mixing up his defenses to throw Kathryn off a little bit. They’re an experienced team, a lot of those kids played a lot last year. We were able to contain Libby, which was a goal of ours and we tried to contain Olivia as much as we could.”

Added Danko: “They made a run but they didn’t get the lead. They got within one or two … our hands were tied by the amount of fouls we had in the first half because of our sloppy play but we weathered the storm. The defense wasn’t the problem, it was us being unable to finish (in the first half), we left so much out there.”

PLAYER OF THE GAME

Warde’s Olivia Parisi. The senior scored 16 of her game-high 22 points in the second half as the Mustangs staved off the Cadets upset bid.

UNSUNG HERO

St. Joseph’s Elena Ball. Fifteen of her team-high 17 came in the second half as the Cadets battled to the very end to steal away the win.

QUOTABLE

“St. Joe’s has lost some close games this year, they’ve been in a lot of close games against good teams. We were fortunate that we stayed out of foul trouble in the second half and that allowed us to put a little more pressure on them.” — Warde coach Dave Danko

WARDE 55, ST. JOSEPH 51

ST. JOSEPH 10 10 17 14 — 51

WARDE 9 10 25 11 — 55

WARDE (6-1, 4-0 FCIAC)

Olivia Parisi 7 8-14 22, Catherine Allison 2 0-2 4, Aleysha Henry 1 0-0 2, Caroline Aufiero 3 4-6 13, Ava Fitzpatrick 1 0-2 2, Toni Lamparski 2 2-2 8, Kristina Krasniqi 1 0-0 2, Libby McKenna 1 0-2 2. Totals: 18 14-28 55

ST. JOSEPH (2-7, 1-5 FCIAC)

Tessie Hynes 2 4-4 8, Emma Elrod 6 0-0 13, Veronica Lubas 0 0-1 0, Rahima Johnston 2 2-2 6, Kathryn Zito 2 2-4 7, Elena Ball 7 0-1 17, Elizabeth Adzima 0 0-0 0, Maddie Johnson 0 0-0 0, Sarah Johnson 0 0-0 0. Totals: 19 8-12 51

3-pointers: Warde — Lamparski 2, Aufiero; St. Joseph — Elrod, Zito, Ball 3