Pictured: Morgan’s Caeley Ayer saves a ball from going out of bounds as Cromwell’s Cameryn Hickey defends in the third quarter of Tuesday’s game. (Photo by Paul Augeri) 

By Paul Augeri
middlesexcountysports@gmail.com

CROMWELL – Coach Kelly Maher could not have asked for a better start from her Cromwell girls basketball team on Tuesday night.

The Panthers clicked on the offensive end as if it were midseason. And their defense forced Morgan into mistake after mistake while holding the Huskies to four first-quarter points and just six field goals over the 32 minutes of a 59-22 Shoreline Conference win at Jake Salafia Gymnasium.

Nevaeh Clark (23) is fouled on a drive to the basket by Morgan’s Victoria O’Neill (31) in the third quarter. At left is the Huskies’ Maeve Madura. (Photo by Paul Augeri)

Cromwell won its third straight to start the new season and again held an opponent under 30 points (29 vs. Newtown, 27 vs. Haddam-Killingworth).

“We talked about coming out right from the start and setting the tone,” said Maher, who recorded the 299th win of her 15-year career as head coach. “Now it’s just a matter of putting together four (good) quarters at once. We’re too up and down still, but it’s early.”

Cromwell’s starting five – all juniors – broke out to a 19-4 lead after one quarter, and although the Panthers produced just four points in the second, they outscored the Huskies 18-4 in the third quarter to win going away.

Point guard Nevaeh Clark led the Panthers with 16 points on 6-of-9 shooting and also contributed 6 rebounds and 7 assists. Jessica Grodzicki scored 14 points and had a team-high 4 steals, and Adela Cecunjanin scored 8 points and grabbed 12 rebounds.

Junior forward Katie Martin led the Huskies (0-3) with 9 points. Returning two-guard Caeley Ayer, a junior and one of the top all-round players in the league, was held to 5 points on 2 of 8 shooting.

Like Cromwell, Morgan doesn’t have a senior among its starting five. But while the Panthers’ lineup returned intact, Huskies coach Caitlin Woods’ players will need time to grow as a unit. She also starts sophomore Maeve Madura at the point, sophomore Ava Johnson and junior Sofie Passante.

“I said to the team the last game, the positive is it was game number two, and the positive here is it’s game number 3,” said Woods. “We’re young and it’s a team that collectively hasn’t played together as starting lineup. What we lost last year (All-State and Shoreline Player of the Year Catie Donadio among others) is huge, but we’ve got the parts. We just have to put the puzzle together.

Sophomore Maeve Madura, guarded by Cromwell’s Grace Mikan, is running the point for the Huskies this season. (Photo by Paul Augeri)

“It’s better to experience this now than down the stretch. As tough it is, they’re going to figure it out. There were moments of frustration, but they’re certainly not going to stop work working hard. I’m proud of them for that.”

Each of Cromwell’s starters were involved in the early onslaught that put the game out of Morgan’s reach.

Cecunjanin put back her own rebound for the Panthers’ first basket, Clark drove the length of the court for a lay-up following a Morgan missed shot, and after Morgan’s fourth turnover in the first two minutes, Brynn Kovacs scored in transition from a Clark feed for a 6-0 lead.

Johnson’s basket with 4:35 left broke the Huskies’ dry spell before Cromwell peeled off a 13-0 run. Grodzicki scored eight consecutive points to launch the run, while Grace Mikan swished a jumper off a Morgan turnover in the backcourt and then buried a 3-pointer to put the Panthers up by 17 with 40.6 seconds left in the quarter.

“Jess can score in bunches,” Maher said, “but what’s nice about her is her defense. She guarded Ayer and was still able to perform for us on the offensive end. She finds her teammates, too.”

Martin made two free throws with 22.2 seconds left to end Morgan’s scoreless stretch. The Huskies were undone in the quarter by a combination of Cromwell’s relentless traps and help defense and its own unforced errors.

“Cromwell may be young, but they’re tough, they’re solid,” said Woods. “They have a couple of kids who have played in big-time varsity games and we knew to expect that. But Cromwell outplayed us, got back (down the floor) when we couldn’t. There’s a lot to learn and cram in, but it’s nice that my players are young and we can mold them and they have this time to work together.”

A 3-pointer by Ayer in the opening seconds of the second quarter to make it a 19-7 game was the closest Morgan got the rest of the way. The Panthers, who led 23-10 at the half, scored 18 of the first 19 points of the third quarter, nine coming from Clark.

“We’re just talking about getting better one game at a time,” Maher said. “Defense is our focus. It’s our focus in practice. I couldn’t be happier because it’s starting to come together and they’re seeing the effects of that. Some of that goes back to last year. We’ve honed in on positioning and now we’re seeing some of the benefits of that.”

Said Woods: “Their defense is always stifling, but we’re struggling on offense as well. Combine that with a tough defense, and I think our kids hit the panic button. We have a tendency to do that. If we get frazzled, it’s like they try to win a game on one pass possession or one shot. We just have to settle in and work as a group.”

MORGAN (0-3)
Caeley Ayer 2 0-0 5, Maeve Madura 0 0-0 0, Katie Martin 3 3-4 9, Ava Johnson 1 1-3 3, Sofie Passante 0 1-2 1, Ava Zirlis 0 3-4 3, Victoria O’Neill 0 1-2 1, Glenda Zhiminakela 0 0-0 0, Lily Torres 0 0-0 0. Totals: 6 9-15 22.

CROMWELL (3-0)
Grace Mikan 3 0-0 8, Brynn Kovacs 3 1-3 7, Jessica Grodzicki 7 0-2 14, Nevaeh Clark 6 2-2 16, Adela Cecunjanin 4 0-0 8, Kayla Nappi 0 0-0 0, Cameryn Hickey 3 0-0 6, Abigail Burgess 0 0-0 0, Leah Pepe 0 0-0 0. Totals: 26 3-7 59.

Score By Quarters
Morgan……..4 6   4  8–22
Cromwell…19 4 18 18–59

3-pointers: Morgan: Ayer 1; Cromwell: Mikan 2, Clark 2.
Up next: Cromwell vs. Pomperaug, Thursday, 7pm; Morgan at Guilford, Thursday, 7.

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