Pictured: The Chieftains of Conard celebrate their end-to-end 58-42 win over Middletown on Thursday night in the CCC tournament. (Photo by Paul Augeri)

By Paul Augeri

MIDDLETOWN — Red-hot Middletown defeated Conard by 21 points in late January, which felt awfully like a harbinger for how their first-round CCC girls basketball tournament matchup would turn out on Thursday night.

No problem for the Blue Dragons, riding an 11-game winning streak and now playing on their home floor, the second time around. Right?

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

The Chieftains, seeded 14th in the 16-team tournament, attacked No. 3 Middletown from the opening tip, defended well and hit their shots in a 58-42 upset at LaBella-Sullivan Gymnasium.

Conard’s Sophia Lynch pressures Middletown’s Tyah Pettaway in the third quarter of Thursday’s CCC tournament game. (Photo by Paul Augeri)

“I think what was really special to these girls is Middletown came to us and gave us a game,” Conard coach Laurie Cercosimo said, “and they’re an extremely, extremely talented team and they’re well coached. We’ve just continued to get better every day and they wanted it tonight. They wanted it.”

Middletown never held a lead.

“They’re the type of group that when they’re punched, they want to punch back and they did tonight,” Cercosimo said. “They came out tonight and knew that if we (lost), we’re out. It’s just a really awesome team win.”

Middletown, ranked 10th in the state and winner of 16 of their last 17 coming in, was primed to make a splash in the tournament and possible face No. 1-ranked Newington in the semifinals. Instead, the team will get a week and a half off to recharge and prepare for the CIAC Class LL tournament.

“They just came in with a great mindset and took it to us from the tip,” Blue Dragons coach Rob Smernoff said. “Once we fell behind early it was like a balloon, and the air just got sucked right out of us.”

Conard freshman guard Callie Cosgrove, who led all scorers with 22 points, hit an all-net 3-pointer in the opening minute to set the tone. The Chieftains jumped out to a 9-2 advantage and led by as many as 12 points (25-13) in the second quarter.

Middletown cut its deficit to 27-21 at halftime when Tyah Pettaway sprinted downcourt after a Conard missed field goal attempt with 7.2 seconds to go and converted a layup.

Tajahnae Brock gets a shot off in the face of tight defense from two Conard defenders, including Courtney McPhee (10). (Photo by Paul Augeri)

The Blue Dragons challenged for the lead when they scored twice — a Pettaway bucket just outside the lane, and a Shalyn Smith layup created by Middletown’s pressure defense — in the opening 26 seconds of the third quarter.

But they never got ahead. As impressive as Conard was in the first half with its up-tempo style and patience in the half-court, the Chieftains were better when threatened. They scored 8 of the next 9 points to push the lead back to nine at 35-26.

Pettaway got a bounce to drop from six feet with 4:46 left in the quarter to stem the flow, but Conard scored seven straight points, capped by a Cosgrove triple, to go up 42-28 at the 2:57 mark.

The Chieftains led by 11 entering the fourth quarter. Middletown got no closer than nine the rest of the way.

“I will say about this team, they don’t crumble,” said Cercosimo, in reference to her team’s surge after Middletown got within two of the lead. “We had a game against Southington, we were down like 25 and got a 5-second call with a minute left. They don’t give up. They don’t care what the score is. They just keep going.”

Emily Knowles, another super freshman, added 17 points for Conard and Courtney McPhee (yep, a freshman as well), added 9 points, while junior Tatiana Harrison was a big factor at the defensive end.

“She’s kind of like a sleeper, nobody really ever pays attention to her,” Cercosimo said. “She’s won a lot of our games this year with her hustle underneath and her rebounding and just getting the ball to her teammates. She’s such a huge factor to us. Tatiana does so much for our group and I couldn’t be more proud of her.”

While Conard never made it easy for Middletown on the offense end, the Blue Dragons uncharacteristically missed a lot of layups and pull-up shots from eight feet in. They also gave away possessions with turnovers, a number that came after getting steals.

“We had a bunch of times where we did create offense from our defense,” Smernoff said. “What Conard did a really good job of was they faked toward the ball and dropped to the other player, and because we’re so unselfish most of the time and we’re always looking for an open teammate, we needed to be more selfish with our play. It’s tough when you tell kids to play unselfish basketball and then try to change the mindset.”

Smernoff said Conard played a similar style of game in January but didn’t make a lot of shots. The combination of Conard’s shots falling on Thursday while Middletown’s didn’t factored heavily in the outcome.

“They made a lot of shots that didn’t go in three weeks ago,” he said, “and we tried to prepare our team in a way that they would make them today. We missed a ton of shots we normally make. At the end of the day, I’ll take about 20 shots that we missed any day of the week because all season we made them.

“I really think it was just one of those games that we fell down early, and all we needed was that one time to take the lead and it would have flipped the whole game. And we just couldn’t get over that hump. And that’s a credit to them.”

CONARD (12-9)
Callie Cosgrove 9 0-0 22, Emily Knowles 6 4-4 17, Tatiana Harrison 1 3-6 5, Sophia Lynch 2 1-2 5, Courtney McPhee 3 3-4 9, Leah Williams 0 0-0 0, Teagan DiPippo 0 0-0 0, Nicole Govman 0 0-0 0. Totals: 21 11-16 58.

Shalyn Smith 4 0-0 8, Jada Bryant 1 0-0 2, Alexa DeSena 2 0-0 4, Tyah Pettaway 7 1-2 15, Shadae Bushay 4 2-4 10, Tajahnae Brock 1 1-2 3, Kaila Torres 0 0-1 1. Totals: 19 4-9 42.

Score By Quarters
Conard………17 10 17 14–58
Middletown…13 8 12 9–42

3-points: Conard–Cosgrove 4, Knowles 1.
Up next: Conard faces Southington in CCC quarterfinals, Saturday; Middletown awaits Class LL tournament pairings.

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