Crusaders creating own identity

It’s been a season of adjustment for the defending state champion Lauralton Hall basketball team. The Crusaders, after losing five players to graduation, embarked on life in new league, switching from the South-West Conference to the Southern Connecticut Conference.

After some early-season struggles, the Crusaders have caught fire. They reeled off six consecutive wins, including a 33-31 nail-biter against host Shelton on Jan. 22.

The Crusaders improved to 7-5 overall and the Gaelettes dropped their fifth straight to fall to 4-8.

Maggie Salandra hit the decisive shot to break a tie with just 17 seconds remaining, as the Crusaders survived a great comeback by the Gaelettes.

Emily Spahn scored 11 points, Salandra dropped in eight, Patricia Gildea had five and Tanisha Clark added four. Amethyst Barzee and Spahn both pulled down 10 rebounds and Salandra came up with five steals and five assists.

Shelton trailed 24-10 in the third quarter before chipping away, getting to within 28-21 after three, and taking the lead, 29-28, with 3:19 left in the game.

Spahn took a bounce pass from Salandra and converted a three-point play for a 31-29 lead with 2:38 to go.

Shelton’s Casey O’Connor tied the score with 1:04 left, setting the stage for Salandra’s game-winning jumper.

“Obviously, it felt good — sign of relief,” said Salandra, adding that this was far from the best she or her teammates have played.

The Crusaders, who scored a minimum of 40 points in their previous five victories, struggled to get shots to fall against Shelton, but coach Amanda Forcucci noted that she was pleased to see her team prevail in a pressure-filled environment.

Shelton was held to just eight first-half points — four in each the first and second quarters — and the Crusaders built a 19-8 lead at the intermission by ending the half on a 7-0 run. The Crusaders did a fair amount of their damage in transition.

“Overall, I think we do a really good job of running the floor… And making shots and getting everyone involved,” Forcucci said.

She attributes much of her team’s recent success also to leadership. “We have good captains this year,” said Forcucci, referring to Salandra and Clark.

Salandra said the team is coming together nicely after that sluggish beginning to the campaign, and added that it gained a big boost of confidence in their first game of the new calendar year, a 40-37 edging of then unbeaten Jonathan Law on Jan. 3, which ended a three-game slide.

“We come out harder; we’re more focused. We’re playing together — we’ve finally clicked as a team,” Salandra said. “We have to prove ourselves. We’re different people, a different team.”