Lauralton Hall returns to state final

After losing a heart-breaker in last year’s Class LL state championship game, the Lauralton Hall basketball team’s goal was to give itself a shot at redemption this season.

The second-seeded Crusaders did just that, upending third-seeded Mercy of Middletown, 52-43 before a standing room-only crowd of about 1,400 at Sheehan High School in Wallingford on March 14, to earn a spot in this weekend’s title game against fourth-seeded South Windsor (22-2) at Mohegan Sun Arena.

“I’m just so proud of our kids that they get a chance to go [to the state championship] twice and get that experience,” said Lauralton Hall coach Amanda Forcucci.

That Lauralton (22-1) defeated Mercy to get to the Class LL final might seem a little extra sweet, considering it was the Tigers (25-2) who shocked the Crusaders with a desperation buzzer-beater to win last year’s title, 54-53.

But both Forcucci and senior guard Carly Fabbri insisted all that mattered was getting to the championship game.

“Our goal was to get to the state championship, so whoever we had to meet along the way, our goal was to beat that team,” said Forcucci, whose team lost to Mercy earlier this season, 48-38.

“Everybody kept asking us, is it for revenge?” Fabbri said. “No, it’s for this year.”

Fabbri did most of the heavy lifting offensively for Lauralton Hall, scoring a game-high 21 points, while senior Emily Menendez added a clutch 3-point shot and the Crusaders held Mercy to  30 percent shooting (16-of-53) and its second lowest point total of the season to gain the victory.

Lauralton Hall withstood a five-plus minute scoring drought spanning the first and second quarters, but its defense held the Tigers to just seven points during that stretch to stay within striking distance.

Trailing 15-12 with just under five minutes left in the first half, Fabbri started to get hot, scoring eight points including a long trey to give the Crusaders a 20-18 lead with 43 seconds left in the second quarter.

Mercy tied the score on a Maura Fitzpatrick steal and layup, but Lauralton Hall’s Maggie Salandra (eight points) stuck a putback to close out the first half and give Lauralton Hall a 22-20 halftime lead.

Lauralton Hall began to take control of the game by scoring eight straight points to open up the second half.

Maureen Connolly (five points) took a feed from Fabbri and scored on a driving layup. Emma McCarthy, who had 14 points and seven rebounds, converted a pair of layups and Salandra sank two free throws to give Lauralton Hall a 30-20 lead just 3:16 into the third quarter.

The Crusaders extended their lead to 38-27 on a Fabbri step-back trey with 1:52 left in the third quarter, and then to 12 points on a McCarthy putback one minute into the final quarter.

But Lauralton Hall appeared to start losing some steam at that point, and the Tigers took advantage. Mercy sophomore reserve Destine Perry scored five straight points and junior guard Kendra Landy made two free throws to cap a 7-0 Tiger run and cut the Crusader lead to 42-37 with 3:31 left in the game.

Desperately needing a bucket to end the Mercy run, Menendez made perhaps the shot of her career to date.

The senior floated out to the top of the key, and after a teammate penetrated and kicked the ball out to her, Menendez calmly drilled the clutch trey, her only basket on the night.

“What makes her a good three-point shooter is that she’s very strategic in when she takes them,” said Forcucci of Menendez. “She doesn’t take a whole lot. I want to say she has maybe 13 or 14 on the year. She’s got confidence, she’ll step to the line and hit it. She stepped up. She had confidence to hit it.”

Menendez’s 3-pointer increased the Lauralton Hall lead to eight points, 45-37, with 3:13 left, and essentially clinched the victory.

Despite the fact that the Crusaders struggled from the free-throw line during the game’s final two-plus minutes – Lauralton Hall made just 5-of-13 from the charity stripe – Mercy never got any closer than seven points the rest of the way.

“I’m just so happy,” said Forcucci.  “Not many teams make it this far.”

Lauralton Hall is 0-2 in basketball state championship games. Aside from last year’s loss, the Crusaders lost to Masuk, 54-44, in the 1995 Class L final.