NAUGATUCK — The madness of March was in full effect at Hillside Intermediate School March 26. About 150 vocal fans packed the house to watch the No. 1 Wildcats go up against the No. 2 Panthers for the YMCA senior girls Little Pal championship.
For a game that is supposed to be played in an upright position, players spent much of the night sprawled out on the court. With each contested shot, the defense got more physical and the fans got louder.
The Wildcats survived a gallant comeback by the Panthers in the fourth period to pull out a 31-25 win to claim the championship. Brielle Behuniak slashed through the lane to lead the Wildcats with 12 points. Mia Rotatori (six points) and Shannon Burns (five points) scored all the points in the final period as the ‘Cats hung on for victory.
Hailey Dietelbaum (12 points) was not letting the Panthers go down without a fight as she dropped nine points in the fourth to try and spark a comeback.
City Hill Middle School basketball coach Fred Scheithe was in the crowd and commented, “It doesn’t surprise me that both teams went at it as hard as they did. Half of the girls out there are from the middle school team and they used to go at one another in practice all the time.”
The best of three series for the championship began with the Wildcats taking game one, 35-26. Burns led the way with a team-high 10 points. Dietelbaum added 10 points for the Panthers.
After losing to the Wildcats twice in the regular season and dropping game one, the Panthers were not taking no for an answer in game two. On March 23 the Panthers got after it early building a 12-7 first-period advantage. They hung on to hand the ‘Cats their first defeat of the season in a 33-32 white-knuckle affair.
Dietelbaum led the way with 10 points and Evelyn Diaz scored eight. Gabby Mastropietro and Alyssa McNeil adding six points each. The Wildcats were led by Burns with 10 points and the stage was set for a winner-take-all game three final.
The points were hard to come by in the opening period with players crashing the board for rebounds and defending every shot. Nicole Mercer, Trista Caron and Sarah Morin controlled the rebounding advantage for the ‘Cats. Emily Kropo and Paige Anderson denied shots to lead the Panthers’ defense.
It was a one-possession game with 4:38 left in the first half before the Wildcats went on a run. Kayla Howard came away with a couple of steals and dished off a pair of assists on inbound passes with Behuniak and Jayden Noble throwing in shots off the window.
The Panthers ‘B’ squad got after it and tried to close the gap as Riley Kane, Kayshla Diaz and Gwendolyn Benning-Chonko made their presence felt. Julia Kropo showed great movement as she dribbled through traffic to lay in a shot, but the Panthers still trailed 14-9 at the half.
The Wildcats ‘B’ squad of Amanda McDonald, Lindsey Walsh, Alena Rotatori and Saige Winslow helped the Cats pull away and take a commanding 24-12 lead heading down the stretch.
Alyssa Roberts battled on the boards for the Panthers and her free throw got the deficit under 10 points with 4:50 left in the game. Dietelbaum then went on a tear. She scored nine points in the final period and banked in a shot to cut the lead to 26-23 with 1:43 to go.
A put back from Behuniak and two foul shots from Burns sealed the deal for the Wildcats.
“We were the runner-up last year so this is so rewarding and I’m so proud of our girls effort,” said Wildcats head coach Bob Burns, who along with assistant coach Dave Rotatori guided the Cats to a 13-1 overall record. “Facing a team five times is no easy task and the Panthers coaches, Jay Kane and Mike Mastropietro, did great job with their girls this season. We fell behind in game two and didn’t make our foul shots so give credit to the Panthers as they never lost their poise in a very close game.”