Pictured: Abby Bradbury (21) led Valley Regional with 16 points in Thursday’s home win against Cromwell. (Photo by Danny Atkinson)

By Danny Atkinson

DEEP RIVER – All season long, the Valley Regional and Cromwell girls basketball teams have been looking forward to their first clash. The programs have been fighting neck-and-neck for first place in the Shoreline Conference alongside East Hampton and the trio are also near the top of the Class M rankings. When the game finally happened Tuesday night, it certainly lived up to the hype.

Valley took control near the end of the first quarter and led by nine points heading into the fourth. While Cromwell held the Warriors to six points in the quarter, their defense slowed down the Panthers enough to hold on for a 49-46 victory. It was Valley’s first win over the dominant Cromwell program in at least a decade.

The Warriors (15-2, 11-2) have won four straight games and earned their third win this week. The Panthers (12-3, 10-3) saw their 3-game win streak end. Valley, East Hampton and Cromwell are jockeying for the top seed in the Shoreline tournament with a week left in the regular season, and the three also are competing for the best seedings in the Class M rankings.

After the squads traded baskets for much of the third, guard Abby Bradbury hit a long 2-pointer just before the buzzer to give Valley a 43-34 lead heading into the final eight minutes.

Cromwell shook it off. The Panthers began pushing the tempo and upping their defensive pressure, resulting in a turnover and poor shots for the Warriors and the Panthers beating Valley down the floor for multiple layups. The last came from shooting guard Nevaeh Clark, who cut the deficit to 43-39 with roughly five minutes to go.

The Warriors punched back against Cromwell’s run on both ends of the court. Out of a timeout, they fed forward Lily Grow for a layup and point guard Ava Cunningham earned a nifty steal, eventually leading to Bradbury making a free throw to push Valley’s led to seven with 3:20 remaining.

From there, the game became physical. The Panthers quickly got the ball to forward Adela Cencunjanin, who forced a foul and knocked down both free throws. Their defense trapped Valley’s ballhandlers, leading to consecutive steals. However, Cromwell came up empty on two tough shots and still trailed 46-41 with 1:37 to go.

Valley finally secured the win with one more quality stop at the rim and a beautiful shot. It forced a wild layup attempt and then scored on a free throw and jumper by Grow to make it 49-42.

The Panthers had run out of time to come back.

Bradbury scored 12 points in the first half and finished with 16, while Grow scored 7 in the second, including Valley’s only fourth-quarter field goals, and finished with 12. The Warriors pulled the game out despite missing 11 of 15 free throws.

Clark had 9 points in the third to keep Cromwell in the game and finished with 14. Jessica Grodzicki led the way with 15 points and three 3-pointers.

Valley coach Jaimie Bickelhaupt and Bradbury each spoke about why their defense was able to shut down Cromwell’s attempts to rally in the final minutes.

“Our communication was key on defense. That’s gotten better the entire season,” Bickelhaupt said. “They were also able to move quickly and guard passes. We work hard on that every day in practice and it’s starting to show.”

“I think we just really listened to one another and came together,” Bradbury said. “We were really unified defensively the whole night. We made all the switches and our effort was 100% like it should be every game.”

Cromwell coach Kelly Maher bluntly summarized why she thought the Panthers didn’t play well and weren’t able to come back and win.

“We didn’t play defense particularly well, we missed a lot of layups and we shot poorly at the free throw line,” Maher said. “I thought they made a nice comeback, but still we needed to play better defensively.”

While their lead was almost always in single digits, Valley never trailed after its first basket.

Neither team could make a field goal in the first four minutes, bricking nearly every shot and each committing multiple turnovers. The first basket occurred 3:28 into the game via a Grodzicki layup. The Warriors got on the board on a Grow step-back 3-pointer and she quickly followed with a layup to make it 5-2 5:03 in. Grodzicki responded with a steal and layup but Bradbury took over from there, draining a layup and three to give the Warriors a 12-6 lead eight minutes in. The intense defense, ugly shooting and poor ballhandling would be present for the remainder of the game.

Both teams were more efficient on offense in the second quarter (17-13, Warriors) and third (15-14, Panthers) even as the defenses continued to pressure and off-the-mark shots were plentiful. Bradbury and Grodzicki were the stars in the second, scoring seven and six points, respectively. Valley began to get the ball inside for layups in the second, while Cromwell dominated on the boards but struggled to convert layups. The Warriors ended the second quarter on an 8-3 run.

Clark and Cencunjanin were the offense in the third quarter, scoring 13 of the Panthers’ 15 points and each hitting a 3. They were able play faster and score consistently off blocks and turnovers. Valley got good looks at the rim when it got to the paint. It maintained a solid lead, never allowing Cromwell to get closer than seven points.

Even with the offensive struggles, Bradbury found some positives at that end of the floor.

“I think we moved and passed the ball really well and executed our plays. Everything went smoothly and it was a great game,” she said.

Bickelhaupt understands how important it was for Valley to beat Cromwell.

“This was huge. They’re a great team. They’re very impressive on both ends and it was competitive throughout. This win means our momentum for the rest of the (regular) season is swinging our way.”

Valley will welcome Morgan (9-7) on Friday, which has lost three in a row. Cromwell will have no time to rest as it plays at North Branford (13-5) and Canton (7-9) on Friday and Saturday.

Maher was clear about the lessons Cromwell can take from this particular loss.

“We can’t keep making the same mistakes every game,” she said. “We have to play for consistently for 32 minutes and not take any time off.”

Valley Regional 49, Cromwell 46

Adela Cecunjanin 1 3 6, Jessica Grodzicki 7 0 17, Nevaeh Clark 5 1 12, Grace Mikan 0 0 0, Abigail Burgess 0 0 0, Hope Greaves 0 0 0, Cameryn Hickey 1 1 3, Brynn Kovacs 2 0 4, Kayla Nappi 1 2 4, Leah Pepe 0 0 0, Annika Peters 0 0 0, Sophia Santangelo 0 0 0. Totals: 17 7-19 46.

Ava Cunningham 0 0 0, Abby Bradbury 6 2 16, Bitzy Klomp 2 0 4, Liz Allen 3 1 7, Olivia Cunningham 2 1 6, Siena Schaller 2 0 4, Lily Grow 5 0 12, Regan Grow 0 0 0, Rubee Cecchini 0 0 0. Totals: 20 4-15 49.

Score By Quarters
Cromwell…..6 13 15 12–46
Valley Reg…12 17 14 6–49

3-pointers: Cromwell–Grodzicki 3, Clark 1, Cecunjanin 1; Valley–Bradbury 2, L. Grow 2, O. Cunningham 1.
Up next: Cromwell at North Branford, Friday, 7; Valley vs. Morgan, Friday, 6.

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