2013 Year in Review. February Story of the Month. Raiders win NVL Tournament Title with 40-38 win over Watertown.
WATERBURY: We have seen and written about the Naugatuck Valley League Championship game in its current format since it went into effect during the 2007/2008 season.
Each year, one team, Torrington, was involved. Each year, we wrote a story of heartbreak and disappointment as the Raiders would come up short to the likes of Holy Cross or Kennedy.
This year, another team, Watertown, had the kind of season coaches dream about, a 19-1 regular season record that included a first ever Brass Division title and their first trip to the big dance.
Would the Raiders misery continue or would the newcomers feel the sting of getting so close?
On this night, the Raiders felt something nobody picked them to do when the season previews were posted, they beat Watertown by a 40-38 final on a layup by Megan Calabrese with under three seconds to go.
The Raiders and head coach Mike Fritch raised the NVL Tournament trophy with pride after pulling off something no Torrington team had done in recent memory.
This team, known for not having any stars, beat rival Holy Cross three time and the Indians twice by continuing to follow their coach’s leadership.
"Like I said the other night." Fritch said. "This team has bought into what we have been telling them all season."
No stars, just players who believe in each other and have a knack for not letting the pressure of the situation effect how they play.
Take the stat sheet on Thursday night. Six players scored, led by Nicole Kozlak (11) and Paige Middleton (10).
While nobody else broke into double digits, each contributed at a key time during a back and forth game against a team with as deep a starting five as there is in the NVL.
Torrington had come out on fire in the teams’ first meeting, up 19-5 after a quarter in the Raiders home win, the Indians only blemish this year coming in.
From the outset, this one felt much different from the first matchup. The Indians knew they belonged in this game, having played their best basketball over the past three weeks.
Abigail Collier looked strong early with a pair of buckets inside while teammate Sara Selimouski (game high 13) made her presence known inside as well.
Torrington battled back as Middleton, who proved to be one tough sophomore by the time this one was done, sank a pair of free throws and hit a jumper to put her team up 6-5.
Predictions from some of a high scoring contest were going to be way off the mark on this night as points were at a premium and each possession as critical as the next.
The Raiders led by one after the opening quarter, 9-8.
After a pair of free throws by Watertown’s Danielle Lutkus gave the Brass Champs the lead again, a pair of three pointers gave the Copper top guns a little separation, if only for a short while.
Mika Howard, one of the role players that always seems to come up with a big shot each and every game, scored her only points of the night on a trey which was followed up by another from Kozlak.
Selimouski would get her team right back into things by scoring the games next five and the lead again at 17-16.
Olivia Morrison scored on a nice feed from Caroline Teti to put the Raiders up, then added a free throw to send a tight game to the break at 19-17, Torrington.
Little things add up to make the champions and right before the half, senior Kelly Balnis blocked an attempt by the Indians to get off a deep three pointer at the buzzer.
Role players, doing their part.
The back and forth nature of this prize fight continued in the third quarter with both teams grabbing leads, only to see the other come right back.
A Middleton three pointer just before the buzzer gave the Raiders a 29-27 lead entering the fourth, a quarter that looked like it might lead to another.
Slemouski threw another hay-maker with a conventional three point play for the lead, only to see Morrison counter with a jab that put Torrington back up.
Torrington went to a full court press in the final frame and it rattled the Indians.
Still, with 5:51 to go, Watertown was up 34-31 and had momentum.
Middleton went down hard off a pick and needed to be helped off the court, her return uncertain at first glance.
Teti, who had an off game to this point, knew she had to make something happen.
"I had to make a play for my team." Teti said. "I hadn't been playing so well and didn't want to disappoint my team."
Teti drove the lane and was fouled on consecutive drives but sunk just two of four chances, leaving her team down 36-35 with 1:31 to play.
Middleton, who had shaken off the injury she sustained earlier, returned to make her mark on the games last 90 seconds.
Her pass to Kozlak off a steal led to a layup that gave Torrington a 38-36 lead.
Two Watertown free throws ties things up again with 25.3 second to play.
Collier came up with a huge steal on the Raiders next trip down, was fouled but missed both free throws, leaving the Raiders a dozen ticks to try for the win.
Who would take the shot?
"They would be looking to stop Teti, Kozlak or Middleton." Fritch said. "We just wanted to get a shot off."
Teti brought the ball down with the thought of trying to do just that.
"When I got to the middle, I saw three big players in front of me." Teti said. "I wanted to give us a chance to get off a good shot so I got the pass off inside to Megan (Calabrese)."
Calabrese, who has improved her game greatly over the course of this season, got the ball in close and laid in the winning bucket with just over four seconds to go.
For her efforts on the boards during the three games including Thursday night, Calabrese was named Most Valuable Player of the tournament.
For a team with no super stars, this truly represents a "Team" championship.
For Watertown, it becomes a rallying cry.
"I told the girls to watch the presentation of the Championship Trophy and remember how it felt." head coach Ed Lopes said. "I also told them how proud I was of each and every one of them for how far they came this season."
For a program not highly regarded when he got there, Lopes has instilled a winning pedigree which can only lead to better things in the future.