FAIRFIELD -- After a heartbreaking FCIAC tournament semifinal loss to Greenwich, Fairfield Warde coach Dave Danko was admittedly concerned about how his players would respond in the opening round of the CIAC Class LL tournament.

Turns out he didn't have to worry at all.

Sparked by an aggressive defense, led by Sarah Cotto, the Mustangs, ranked No. 5 in the Class LL tournament, rolled past No. 28 Danbury 57-30 Monday night at the Mustangs gym.

"It's a credit to them. They probably suffered one of the toughest defeats in the program (losing to Greenwich)," Danko said. "And for a young team, it's hard. I always preach to them, `respond to situations, don't react. ' That game with Greenwich, we had our souls taken but they bounced back."

Right off the bat, Warde jumped all over the Hatters, scoring the first eight points, and led 16-4 after the first quarter, thanks to seven points from Cotto, who finished with a game-high 20 points to go along with six steals.

"It was pretty important to get off to a fast start, considering how we lost in the FCIACs," Cotto said. "We were all pretty down about that. Danbury's a good team and we knew it would be a tough game and we knew we had to come out and play hard. We communicated a lot better and blended well."

Warde's defense took away pretty much everything that the Hatters tried to establish both inside and out, especially in the second half when Danbury managed just 14 points. Still, for coach Jackie DiNardo, there's was a silver lining as the Hatters made this a much more competitive game -- a far cry from the 63-19 pounding Warde dealt the Hatters back on Dec. 19.

"We worked hard all week and we were able to stay in the game," said DiNardo, whose team ends with a 9-12 record. "I feel great. That (loss) was my second game of the season, this is my last game of the season and there definitely was a lot of improvement. From losing key players from last year and having to ask role players to become key players, I think a lot of kids stepped up."

Such as senior captain Allie Smith, who canned four 3-pointers and led Danbury with 12 points. But the Hatters simply didn't have an answer for Cotto, or for Iliana Krasniqi, who added 19 for the Mustangs (20-3), who next play the winner of Tuesday's Simsbury-Ledyard on Friday at Warde.

Leading 40-22 heading into the fourth quarter, Warde made sure that Greenwich was forgotten by using a 17-5 run to open its biggest lead of the night, 57-27, with 2:26 to play.

"We had a good talk after Greenwich, leading up to this game," Danko said. "My assistant Kathleen (Regula) spoke to them and I told them that we had to move on. The tunnel is not dark, there's a bright light there. This team is talented and we have a lot of kids that can step up and play and we proved that tonight."

celsberry@ctpost.com

DANBURY (9-12)

Janine Kerr 2 0-0 4, Lauren Guiry 0 0-0 0, Allie Smith 4 0-0 12, Andreah Orr 2 1-2 5, Chole Hennig 1 0-0 2, Brianna Rosario 1 0-0 2, Zoe Coleman 2 1-2 5, Emily Broggy 0 0-2 0. Totals: 12 2-6 30

WARDE (20-3)

Iliana Krasniqi 9 1-1 19, Sarah Cotto 7 4-4 20, Shania Osborne 3 0-2 6, Olivia Parisi 4 0-0 9, Allison Whitlock 1 0-0 2, Kim Rodriguez 0 0-0 0, Daja Polk 0 1-2 1, Jacqui Lanese 0 0-0 0, Marisa Miller 0 0-0 0. Totals: 24 6-9 57

DANBURY 4 12 6 8--30

WARDE 16 1311 17--57

3-point goals -- Danbury: Smith 4. Warde: Cotto 2, Parisi