Fairfield Warde's play early on in its FCIAC girls basketball game Friday night against FCIAC-leading Wilton contained the traits of an emotional hangover from the Mustangs' stirring victory against cross-town rival Fairfield Ludlowe just three nights earlier. It's hard to maintain that passion against another team. The Warriors nearly had a double-digit lead midway through the first quarter.
But after several reminders by coach Dave Danko during timeouts, the Mustangs realized it was a different day without the same opponent yet with new challenges. Warde's usually tenacious defense soon kicked in, the Mustangs went on a run to close out the first quarter and maintained that intensity to post a 41-36 victory.
Wilton's four-game winning streak became a casualty as well as their No. 1 seed for the FCIAC tournament quarterfinals at Westhill on Feb. 22. The Warriors' records dropped to 16-2 overall and 14-2 in the conference. Warde's fourth straight win, directly after a three-game slide, improved the Mustangs' records to 14-4 overall and 13-3 in the FCIAC.
Sarah Cotto, a sophomore, scored a team-high 10 points and swatted away a Wilton pass with seven seconds to go to help seal the outcome. Lejla Markovic, another 10th-grader, added eight points. Wilton, whose output was the second lowest all season, was paced by Erin Cunningham's game-high 12 points.
"If you cannot get the ball over half-court, you're not going to be able to score much," said Wilton coach Jaclyn Porco, whose team shot 15-for-53 from the floor. "They (Mustangs) played excellent defense. We didn't execute. We knew what kind of defense they were going to throw at us, we prepared for it, we just didn't execute."
Warde put Wilton in a hole by the middle stages of the first quarter. The Warriors, who led by 11-2 in the first quarter, were down only by 22-20 at halftime, but Warde forced them into a series of turnovers early in the second half. A basket off a steal gave the Mustangs a 28-22 lead at the midway point. Wilton rallied on a conventional three-point play by Cori Cannavino to trail 28-27, but that's as close as the Warriors would get the rest of the way.
Tiara Fountain's floater in the first half-minute of the fourth quarter gave Warde a 37-27 lead. Wilton's attempts to comeback could never get a solid footing because the Mustangs' defense wouldn't allow it.
"We got into the passing lanes, and we grabbed rebounds," Warde coach Dave Danko said. "It was a physical game. Bodies were flying all around the paint."
Concerning Warde's sluggish start, Danko said: "We were back-pedalling and we were letting them penetrate. Once we settled down defensively, we played our game. I think we started taking that away," he said of Wilton getting the ball to its imposing post player Erica Meyer, who made but one basket.
"They started getting frustrated a bit, I think," Danko said. "Everything seemed to go our way."
Wilton had been averaging 52.2 points per game. But most of their opponents' defenses ordinarily aren't as effective as Warde's. The Mustangs average giving up a shade fewer than 36 points per game.
Warde's victory pulled it to within a game of Wilton in the battle for first place in the FCIAC East. The Mustangs' final two regular-season opponents are Trumbull (11-6) on Monday away and at Trinity Catholic (2-15) on Wednesday. Danko believes the Mustangs will be seeded third, fourth of fifth for the conference quarterfinals.
The game against Wilton, he said, was a good opportunity "to see where we stand against the top teams."
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Fairfield Warde 41, Wilton 36
WILTON (16-2, 14-2 FCIAC)
Erin Cunningham 5 0-0 12 Haley English 2 0-0 5 Erica Meyer 1 1-2 5 Makenna Pearsall 1 0-0 2 Karen Brosko 1 1-2 3 Christina Holmgren 3 0-0 6 Mary Lynch 0 0-2 0 Cori Cannavino 1 1-2 3. Totals: 15 3-7 36.
FAIRFIELD WARDE (14-4, 13-3 FCIAC)
Daja Polk 0 0-0 0 Michelle Treglia 0 0-0 0 Kenzie Burns 1 1-2 3 Lejla Markovic 3 2-4 8 Mollie Kerrigan 0 0-0 0 Carley Strachan 1 0-0 2 Kaitlin McKenna 3 1-2 7 Sarah Cotto 4 0-1 10 Tiara Fountain 2 0-1 4 Iliana Krasniqi 3 1-2 7. Totals: 17 5-12 41.
WILTON 15 5 7 9--36
FAIRFIELD WARDE 10 12 13 6--41
3-pointers: W--Cunningham 2, English; FW--Cotto 2.