CIAC GIRLS BASKETBALL: Getting it down to a ‘T,’ Titans tune up for Sunday showdown with Cromwell

CIAC GIRLS BASKETBALL: Getting it down to a ‘T,’ Titans tune up for Sunday showdown with Cromwell

WALLINGFORD — Sheehan girls basketball coach Mike Busillo likens his team’s style to the Wing-T offense in football. It goes against the contemporary grain and relies on old-school power.

With twin towers Liv Robles and Caitlyn Hunt in the post, the Titans set their screens and run their offense through their bigs.

The strategy has taken the Titans all the way to the state finals. On Sunday, No. 13 Sheehan (19-7) squares off against No. 2 Cromwell (24-3) in the Class M state championship game at Mohegan Sun Arena at 3:30 p.m.

“Everyone is shooting 3’s now,” Busillo elaborated. “We are kind of like the Wing-T of girls basketball. We are a little bit more old-fashioned; we pound the ball inside. I would be fired for malpractice, with two big girls who score around the rim, if I didn’t pound the ball inside.”

Robles is the centerpiece. The 5-foot-10 senior is averaging 17.5 points a game and has amassed a program-record 1,280 points.

The emergence of Hunt, a 5-11 sophomore, has given Sheehan one of the strongest frontcourts in the state.

“I think it’s a little to our advantage because so few teams play like we play,” Busillo said. “It’s like football when everyone is spreading you out and then you go against a team that runs the ball and you get them uncomfortable.”

But the Titans are far more than just Robles and Hunt. They run deep.

Mackenzie Hemstock and Alyssa Horobin, like Robles, provide senior experience.

Hunt highlights a strong sophomore class that includes 5-10 guard/forward Hayleigh Lagase and point guard Caitlyn Velez.

Junior guard Caroline Dighello and junior forward Maddi Larkin have been valuable contributors. Freshman guard Sydney Rossacci has been in the rotation since the beginning of the season.

It’s added up to Sheehan’s first state championship game appearance in girls basketball since 2000. The Titans go in having won seven of their last eight.

On their way to the title game, the Titans routed No. 20 Prince Tech 71-18 in the first round at home, then hit the road and knocked off No. 4 Sacred Heart 50-38 in Waterbury in the second round. Advancing to their third quarterfinal in five years, the Titans returned home and topped No. 28 Weaver 75-55. 

The put Sheehan in its first semifinal since the state runner-up year of 2000. Matched with No. 8 Berlin at Plainville, the Titans overcame a double-digit deficit to win 62-59.

Hunt had the go-ahead hoop down the stretch to put Sheehan up for good.

“We are so excited to have the opportunity to play at the atmosphere of Mohegan Sun,” Larkin said. “Coach just keeps saying to enjoy ourselves because we might not get another opportunity.”

A win over Cromwell on Sunday would earn Sheehan its first state title in girls basketball since 1976 and its first state championship in any girls sport since the volleyball team’s Class M crown in 2000.

It won’t be easy. Like Berlin, Cromwell has strong guard play and will present a stiff challenge. Leading scorer Vanessa Stolstajner, a 5-foot-9 junior, averages close to 20 points a game and has already gone over 1,000 for her career.

“She’s able to shoot the three and she’s able to drive to the basket,” Cromwell coach Kelly Maher said. “She gets her other teammates involved. When she gets doubled, she creates for her teammates. She has made the team overall better.”

Stolstajner was critical down the stretch against No. 3 Kolbe Cathedral in a semifinal game played at Maloney. Her free throws proved to be the difference in a 51-47 victory.

Cromwell’s first three wins of the state tournament were all by double figures — No. 31 Valley Regional (64-31) in the first round, No. 15 Morgan (47-34) in the second round and No. 7 East Catholic (51-40) in the quarters.

The semifinal win over Kolbe clinched Cromwell’s seventh trip to the state finals and its fifth since 2011. The Panthers won Class M in 2013 and 2016.

“We know they are good,” Busillo said. “Unlike us, they have experience in this process. That’s probably a little bit to their advantage. They have two really good players in Vanessa Stolstajner and Najla Cecunjanin. They’ve played some really good competition outside of their league and hung with everyone they played.

“We know we are going to be up for a challenge. We feel our conference has prepared us for this moment and we are prepared to take advantage of that.”

Cecunjanin will likely square off with Robles down low. The 5-foot-10 junior is Cromwell’s top post player, pouring in 10 points per game. Maher added that Cecunjanin can also step out and make a 3-pointer.

“I feel confident,” Robles said. “You have to go into every game confident. But they will be a tough opponent. We are going to get back to work and study them some more, and that’s all we can do.”

Maher said her team is at its best when it’s going up and down the floor at a fast pace.

“We have strong guard play,” Maher said. “We are a tough matchup because we like to take it off the dribble and we can also shoot the 3. Depending on what teams give us, we adjust to that.”

Busillo said Cromwell will be a test for his man-to-man defense.

“Our man-to-man has been pretty good,” Busillo said. “I could see us playing a little zone, too. It’s going to be important for us to be there when their shooters catch the ball. They have good inside players.

“They are going to present a lot of challenges. I’m probably not going to have much sleep any time before the game.”

When asked to compare Cromwell to an SCC team, Busillo pointed to Amity.

“They are so well coached," Busillo said. “When I think of the well-coached teams in our league, I think of Amity. They have a toughness about them and I see that in Cromwell.”

Robles has been unstoppable for the Titans down the stretch. She has totaled 66 points in the last two contests. She had 30 against Weaver and 36 Berlin. Both were career highs.

“It’s just my mindset,” Robles said. “I go into every game knowing that we aren’t losing. (The postseason) is different because this could have been the last game of my career and I didn’t want it to end that soon.”

Busillo said Robles has proven to be one of the best players in Sheehan history.

“She’s up there,” Busillo said. “Let’s just say, if I had to pick five girls, she would be in the five. As far as offensive gifts, she’s the best offensive player that I’ve coached. She can score in a variety of ways. She’s somebody who analyzes how they are playing her and finds ways to put the ball into the basket. That’s a gift.

“I think Liv can defend a little better, and I tease her about it, but I’ve been very, very fortunate to coach her,” Busillo continued. “She’s been nothing but a pleasure. She’s scored a lot of points. I know after all of the conversations that I’ve had with her, she’s a team-first kid and I’m not sure everyone realized that. I think sometimes great scorers are thought to be selfish. Liv is anything but selfish. She’s probably our best passer and I’ve been very lucky to coach her.”

Maher is aware of Robles’ exploits this postseason.

“Robles is going to be tough for us,” Maher said. “She had 36 the other night and is strong in the post. We are hoping to do our best to contain her.”

Maher added that her squad has seen teams with similar height this season. She cited New London, Norwalk, Newtown and Kolbe.

Those teams, with the exception of Kolbe, dealt Cromwell its three losses. New London and Norwalk, though, just happen to be meeting in the Class LL final and Newtown reached the Class LL quarterfinals.

Busillo said he’s proud of his girls, past and present, for making it to Mohegan Sun.

“It’s been a journey,” Busillo said. “It’s been a 13-year process as far as I am concerned. I’ve tried to get a little bit better each year as a coach. I think, ultimately, what helps is that I have really good players. I’ve tried to remind them that all year. They haven’t let me down one time. They’ve faced adversity and bounced back.”


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