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Highlanders rally past Bears for BL Tournament crown

WASHINGTON, Conn. – Call it many, many parts a defensive gem, one part offensive diversity and all parts impressive.

Northwestern Regional rallied from two substantial deficits, 11 points in the first half and nine points in the second half to subdue Thomaston and grab the Berkshire League Tournament title, 41-36, at Shepaug High School Friday night. The title was the Highlanders first since 2018 and reversed the result of last year’s tourney final between the two teams.

The two teams played a pair of close games during the regular season with Thomaston winning both contests by 10 and 4-point decisions. So the win should not be considered a monumental upset between the two evenly matched teams. But when you look at the manner of victory and the idea that this was just the Golden Bears third Berkshire League loss in four years (two in the BL Tournament) then you understand that it is a big deal beyond the BL Tournament.

“We beat a great team tonight,” Northwestern coach Fred Williams said. “If they don’t go far In the Class S tournament I would be shocked.”

The game had all the earmarks of a Thomaston win in the first half with the Bears building up a 27-16 lead at one point and a 27-20 lead at the half with All-Stater Nicole Decker leading the way. Decker (14 points) either found her way to the hoop scoring 11 points or worked the pick and roll with Ava Harkness (nine points).

Then Northwestern laid down the defensive hammer.

“We changed our defense totally at halftime,” Northwestern coach Fred Williams said. “We got out of our man-to-man and went to a zone and we haven’t played a zone a lot all year. We focused on Decker and Harkness and the kids got it done.”

Somewhat of an understatement. Thomaston (19-4) looked bewildered at times scoring just nine points in the second half with just three baskets, shooting 3-for-24 (12.5 percent). The Bears only basket in the third quarter came on a Decker 3-pointer and was followed by a blackout period of 7:12 before the next baskets midway through the final period.

“We struggled with the man and Nicole and Ava and we knew the zone would be better,” the Highlanders’ All-Stater Maddie Topa said.

Led by Lily VanOrmer who limited Topa to 11 points, the Bears defense was almost as solid as Northwestern’s, keeping them in the game. But Northwestern found other players who stepped up.

Matty Young contributed 10 points and junior Calleigh Franklin was a difference-maker in the second half, getting herself to the foul line and scored six of her nine points on two drives to the hoop and a pair of free throws in a grinding third quarter.  Franklin scored eight of the teams 21 second half points.

Slowly the Highlanders (19-4) whittled down the lead to four points, 32-28, entering the fourth quarter.

Thomaston finally broke its long dry spell when VanOrmer and Ray Aliu hit consecutive baskets for a 36-32 lead with 4:37 to go in the game. It would be the last points the Bears would score.

Enter Carly Avenia. The senior hit a driving a layup and then brought the Northwestern side of the house down when she drained a 3-pointer to give the Highlanders their first lead since the first quarter, 37-36, with 3:30 to go. One they would not let go.

“It was crazy it got us the lead,” Avenia said. “I was open, the adrenalin was flowing and I had the confidence. “

“We have said all along that Maddie is our go-to player but that other kids are going to have to do things to make us successful,” Williams said. “Matty (Young) was great, Calleigh did some things and Carly hit a big shot.”

Thomaston had plenty of chances to tie but found the bottom of the net off-limits against the Highlanders’ suffocating zone. After several missed Thomaston shots and a turnover, Topa hit a pair of foul shots to make it, 39-36. Maddy Decker’s shot for Thomaston with five seconds left was blocked and Topa closed out the scoring with two more foul shots.

“This is amazing. We came close the last time at their place and we knew what we had to do tonight.” Topa said.

Mission accomplished.

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