A look back (written 3/22/14): They couldn’t kill the Bear

UNCASVILLE – In future years on long winter nights when the snow is swirling and the fire burns bright they will talk about this day and this team.

             About the senior with the big smile, the bigger game and more flat out grit than a desert-full of sand. And the freshman who showed them the now and the promise for the future with a game nobody will forget. They won’t forget the relentlessly rugged left-handed sophomore who wears No. 14.

            But most of all they will talk about how you can’t kill the Bear.  And they will spin the tale of an epic, classic double overtime, 61-57 win over No. 1 St. Paul for the school’s second state title on a March Saturday afternoon at Mohegan that took the breath away and sent a team, school and town into a tearful, lengthy rapture.

            They tried to kill the Bear. Oh, how the Falcons tried. They had a 10-point lead at one point. There were a free throw away from closing the game out with six seconds left in overtime. And in the pain of losing and this one is off the charts in the agony department, they are probably pained at the what if.

            But you can’t kill the Bear.

 Sacred Heart tried in the semifinals and saw a 21-12 halftime lead go up in some big-time Brown and Gold smoke. You look and maybe you don’t see the `wow’ factory.’ They aren’t graceful or smooth. They are the lunch pail kids with the smudged up faces that would rather go to the floor than to go the prom.

The Bears senior star Abby Hurlbert  called it a “wild desire to win.”

            Hey you listen to Hurlbert. Her dad beat UConn with a couple of foul shots when playing for the University of Hartford in 1986. Dad has nothing on his daughter now after what people called one of the most incredible clutch performances they have seen.

            With the Falcons leading, 52-49, and six seconds left in overtime Theresa Swanke missed the second of two foul shots and Casey Carangelo grabbed the rebound and fed it to the 5-foot-9 senior. She raced down the court and let fly from three-point land with a shot that carried a seasons and some legacy with it.

            Hurlbert was fouled by Kelly McMahon with .2 seconds remaining. Let’s see, three foul shots with the season and state title on the line in front of a boisterous and near delirious `Cave’ of Thomaston High supporters.

            That’s more pressure than a two-ton steam roller on a freshly paved driveway. Well come on, it should be. That’s knee-knocking time for anybody. No room for error with three needed.

            Not for Hurlbert. It was just like practice. Two swishes, well maybe a little iron on one but both no-doubters. Then they iced here. Didn’t work. Another swish and another overtime.

            “In practice me Casey (Carangelo) and Chuck (Charlie Eberhardt) focus on the foul shots and always say these are to win the state championship and today they did,” said Hurlbert.

            Coach Bob McMahon was asked what he thought when Hulbert went to the line.

            “Another overtime,” he said.

McMahon knows his star what is deep inside and it is something you don’t teach. 

            Hurlbert did not have a great shooting night (6-for-22) but she is so very big time, a 23-point, eight rebound effort with a P.H.D. in clutch. When Thomaston fell behind, 42-32, late in the third quarter it was Hurlbert with a 3-pointer and basket at the buzzer to cut the deficit to 42-37.

            “The kid is a total winner,” said McMahon.

            Then there was the 6-foot freshman. Casey Carangelo. She gave notice you had better take notice with a solid 8-point, 9-rebound effort in the semifinal win over Sacred Heart. But nobody could have expected this, not Thomaston, not St. Paul.

            Are you kidding? Try this on – 21 points on 10-of-12 shooting with nine rebounds. Stunning. In the decisive second OT, five straight points to put the Bears ahead for good.

            “I didn’t expect to play like this,” said Carangelo. “I took a big look around when I was on the court before the game and I was nervous. But once the ball was up I just played hard.”

            “Casey has been doing this off and on since Lewis Mills,” said McMahon. “She’s a young kid who doesn’t have a lot moves yet but she’s all hustle and grit. I’m happy I have her for another three years.’

            Then there was the alley-fighter, sophomore Morgan Sanson. If you go to war you want to go to war with Sanson and take her cousin Gabrielle Hurlbert with you. All grit and spit and as rugged as they come. On this day, 13 points and 13 rebounds.

            It was Sanson who scored off an offensive rebound in regulation to tie the game at 49-49. It was Sanson who took the lead role in knocking the ball away from Swanke with three seconds left and the Falcons looking for the game-winner. It was Sanson who had a clutch steal in the second OT.

            “I’m so proud of this team, especially the way we won,” I’m in shock. I just knew we had to keep going. I knew it wasn’t over.”

            It’s never over with the Bears. And it could have been. St. Paul is a superb team that had a superb season. There are quality players all over the floor. The Falcon heart beats proudly, fiercely. The Falcons had the Bears, they had them. But they couldn’t kill them.

            There has been a life-force here. There is talent and an unyielding will. And they take the whole town with them. Thomaston closed up its sidewalks here. It was Hoosier-like, not in the big underdog part but in the small-town part.

            An anonymous citizen paid for the Bears to go down Friday night and stay over. The departure from Thomaston High School was headed by four firetrucks, an ambulance, a few other vehicles with sirens roaring. People came out in the center of town to salute.

            Back into the town it was all the same with one difference. Well, two, there were six fire trucks and while the Bears left with hope, they came back with a state title. It’s all about a town and a team.

            “The amount of support we get takes my breath away,” said Hurlbert. “This is what they talked about all week.”

            Today, tomorrow, well into the future they will talk about this team. They will pick apart the game and shake their heads with a smile and joyful tear.  And they will do it all with a proud twinkle in the eye. Because they know.

            You can’t kill the Bears.

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