WALLINGFORD — The Sheehan girls basketball team has played with poise and composure in the closing moments of its first two Class M state tournament contests.
On last Monday, at home in the first round, Lexi Ocasio’s layup as time expired lifted No. 12 Sheehan over No. 21 Waterford, 47-45.
On Thursday, on the road in the second round, Mackenzie Hemstock was the hero with a last-second bucket to lift the Titans past No. 5 Bethel, 47-46.
The reward is a quarterfinal game back at home tonight at 6 p.m. A familiar foe awaits: No. 20 Career Magnet. The Panthers and Titans split their regular-season series and shared the SCC Housatonic crown.
On Thursday night in Bethel, it didn’t seem proabable the Titans would live to see a rubber match. They trailed by 10 points midway through the fourth quarter and were still down by eight with 1:42 to go.
Sheehan coach Mike Busillo said he couldn’t remember a game in which his team overcame that big of a deficit that late in the game.
“I think (Thursday) night was the first,” Busillo said. “If I put 1:45 on the clock against the JV team down eight in practice, I think most times the JV team wins. We had to hit a lot of shots and force a few turnovers and they missed a few free throws.
“It didn’t look good, but we had the right attitude. We made just enough plays to walk away with a win.”
Early in the quarter, Busillo was subbing in Caroline Dighello and Caitlyn Velez on every defensive possession to pressure the Bethel guards. Both provided speed to pester the Bethel backcourt that resulted in some key turnovers.
“I was just trying to get the quickest team on the floor at that point and to still be able to score the best we could,” Busillo said. “We were looking to foul, and Dighello and Velez were two of our tougher and better defenders. They were effective.”
The Sheehan defense didn’t allow a field goal in the final 4:23 and just two buckets total in the fourth quarter as the Titans pieced together a 14-3 run.
“We have played so many close games,” Busillo said. “Both Career games were close. I think we are just accustomed to it. They understand the magnitude of the situation. You can feel the weight of that. My seniors were very composed and we leaned on them for leadership.
“We had a lot of kids make plays. Hemstock and the kids off the bench were doing a great job defensively. I really think our upperclassmen have been so calm and confident and have such a great attitude of not giving up.”
In addition to the strong play of seniors Carolyn Biel, Ocasio and Sydney Hunt, junior scoring leader Liv Robles has been a constant in the paint for the Titans.
“It was a great team effort and we wanted to keep the season going,” Hunt said. “I think we were all speechless after the Bethel game. My throat was sore after screaming so much after that game. It was just such a great feeling.”
After a day off on Friday, the Titans (17-7) prepared on Saturday and Sunday for Career.
The Panthers (15-9) won 50-48 in Wallingford on Jan. 18. The Titans avenged that defeat and earned a share of the division with a 47-39 win in the Elm City on Feb. 9.
In the first meeting, Sheehan was without Ocasio. The senior also injured her knee in the third quarter of the second tilt with Career.
“There are good points and bad of playing a familiar opponent,” Busillo said. “In the tournament, at times we want to play someone we haven’t played before. On the other side, It’s probably not going to be any surprises. They've seen us a couple of times as well. It’s probably going to come down to who is going to execute the best.”
The Panthers are led by senior point guard Ky'Jae Hargrove. She had 14 points in the second meeting.
“They are tough,” Busillo said. “They have good guard play and Hargrove is a handful. We will have our work cut out for us.
“They are a team that beat Mercy this year. They are the only team in the state to do that. Their point guard is terrific and difficult for us to guard. In our conference, we play a lot of tough teams. We’ve played so many games against quality opponents and Career is one of them. It took a heck of an effort to beat them in the second game. I’m not at all surprised they are still playing in the quarterfinals.”
The Titans are seeking their first state semifinal appearance since 2000. That Titans team lost in the Class M finals to Morgan, 53-48.
“I think having a home game this far into the tournament is something we have to take adavantage of,” Hunt said. “I like that we are playing a team that we have already faced because we know their strengths and weaknesses.”
The Sheehan-Career winner will play the victor of the No. 1 Northwestern-No. 9 Weston quarterfinal. On the other side of the bracket, No. 2 East Haven hosts No. 23 Wolcott and No. 14 Stonington visits No. 6 Rocky Hill.
“I thought our end of the bracket had the most depth,” Busillo said. “I think East Haven would be the favorite. I don’t think that is taking anything away from anyone else. But I think it’s wide open.
“We are just trying to win the next game,” he added. “It’s really been our attitude all season. We don’t really talk about what lies ahead too far. We just want to win the next game. I still think we haven’t played our best game of the tournament yet. We are just focused on the next one and, hopefully, we get another chance to play on Monday.”
If Monday night’s game is anything like the first two, a close game is likely in store.
“The bus ride back from Bethel was a special atmosphere that I’ve only been a part of a few times,” Busillo said. “It was really a moment we felt together as a group. It was a special moment for us. The hour and 15 minute bus ride didn’t seem quite as long.”
Sheehan’s lone girls basketball state crown came in 1976. That year, the Titans defeated Ledyard 61-45 to win Class L.