Eric DeMarco's plan was clear: speed the game up so his Notre Dame of Fairfield girls basketball team wouldn't have to deal with Haddam-Killingworth's obvious size advantage in a half-court game.
It was a sound strategy, save for the fact that ND had trouble scoring points in transition: The Lancers missed nearly 80 percent of their field-goal attempts in the first three quarters.
But don't worry; there was a Plan B.
"If our offense is not working, we focus more on defense," ND's Jovan Kingwood said after the Lancers rallied for a 49-43 victory in the Class M state semifinals at Sheehan High School. "We extended our defense and got more steals. That's the only reason we won."
For a while it looked as if it would be the HK Cougars that would earn the berth in the Class M state final. The No. 3 seed Cougars (20-6) led 41-34 in the first minute of the fourth quarter and owned the lead the entire game. Their turnovers -- 26 in all, including 12 in the fourth quarter -- merely turned into missed shots at the other end, as the Lancers were stone cold from the field. But that trend finally changed in the final minutes.
"When we get into a defensive mindset, it's difficult to play us," a jubilant DeMarco said.
The second-seeded Lancers (23-3) will face undefeated and top-seeded Cromwell Friday or Saturday in the state final at the Mohegan Sun Arena.
"We used our defense to jumpstart our offense," DeMarco said.
The Lancers, who were led by Kingwood and Amber James (11 points each), missed 24 of their first 31 shots and were 15 for 59 before making their final three shots in the last 2:30 of the fourth quarter.
With HK leading 41-34, Kingwood, who had seven of her 11 points in the final period, got the Lancers within 41-38. James then sank two free throws to give the Lancers their first lead at 45-43 with 1:56 remaining. The way the Cougars were dealing with the ND defense that would be all the Lancers would need. ND outscored HK 15-2 in the fourth quarter.
"We couldn't handle their pressure," HK coach Jim Bombaci said of his team's 12 fourth-quarter turnovers. Bombaci could have been referring to the physical pressure created by the Lancer defense, or the mental state of his team that was trying to reach the first state final in school history.
"This was not characteristic of us," he said. "We're normally a much more controlled team."
Aly Furgiuele added seven rebounds while Briana Mann pulled down six boards for the Lancers, who were outrebounded 39-29.
The Cougars, who made 20 of 48 field goal attempts, forced just nine turnovers compared to the 26 they committed. Tori Peterson led HK with 14 points and eight rebounds. Lauren McCann added 10 points and seven rebounds while Kiley Anderson had 15 rebounds to go with her eight points.
Class M semifinals
Maya Savino 1 0-0 3 Kiley Anderson 4 0-0 8 Lauren McCann 5 0-0 10 Marissa Moncata 2 0-0 4 Tori Peterson 7 0-0 14 Samantha Waskowitz 1 0-0 3 Halie Serbent 0 1-2 1. Totals: 20 1-2 43.
Amber James 4 3-4 11 Jovan Kingwood 5 0-4 11 Aly Furgiuele 1 3-5 6 Briana Mann 3 1-2 7 McKenzie Stone 1 0-0 3 Nakia Mabin 1 1-3 3 Alexandra Danas 1 0-0 3 Jerlisa Thomas 2 0-0 5 Tekarah Coward 0 0-0 0. Totals: 18 8-18 49.
HADDAM-KILLINGWORTH 14 11 14 4--43
ND-FAIRFIELD 11 9 14 15--49
3-pointers: HK--Savino, Waskowitz; ND--Kingwood, Furgiuele, Stone, Danas, Thomas.