Pictured: Ava Cunningham (1) is at the center of Valley’s postgame celebration following Tuesday’s 50-40 win over Cromwell in the Shoreline tournament semifinals (Photo by Paul Augeri)

By Marc Silvestrini

CROMWELL — The Valley Regional girls basketball team scored 15 straight points over the first seven minutes of the fourth quarter Tuesday to turn a close, taut basketball game into a 50-40 win in the semifinals of the Shoreline Conference tournament.

The Warriors will play the winner of Wednesday night’s East Hampton/North Branford tilt in the tournament championship game on Friday at a site to be determined.

Prior to Valley’s game-winning flurry, the two teams had fought through 16 lead changes and four ties and neither could ever gain more than a four-point lead.

Valley’s stellar All-Shoreline First Team sharpshooter, Abby Bradbury, led the 15-0 surge with eight points while Liz Allen and Lily Grow each had key buckets and sisters Olivia (with two) and Ava Cunningham hit three free throws during the run, which left the visitors atop a 47-33 lead with 54 seconds left in the game.

“At halftime we knew we were in a real dogfight because Cromwell is such a good team,” said Valley coach Jaimie Bickelhaupt. “I told the girls the game would be decided by whoever wanted it more. And they really responded in that fourth quarter. They really worked their butts off.

“It all came down to heart, effort and hustle plays.”

The win improved Valley’s record to 19-3 on the season while Cromwell slips to 17-5.

“We had a couple of defensive lapses in that fourth quarter and they made a couple of big plays,” Cromwell coach Kelly Maher said. “We just didn’t play a very consistent game for all 32 minutes tonight. We had those lapses in the fourth quarter and we also missed some easy shots earlier in the game, even after getting the shots we wanted.”

Jessica Grodzicki and Cam Hickey got the Panthers off to a fast start with a pair of buckets in the game’s first 45 seconds to stake the team to a 4-0 lead. A pair of baskets by Olivia Cunningham and a drive by Grow enabled the Warriors to take the lead at 6-4 before Grodzicki buried a 3-pointer from the corner to put the Panthers back on top at 7-6 after one quarter of play.

The teams battled through four lead changes over the first five and a half minutes of the second quarter before Bradbury hit a deep 3 to give the visitors a 15-11 with 2:39 to play in the half.

Hickey, however, responded with a 3-pointer for the Panthers while Adela Cecunjanin closed out the scoring in the opening half with a follow-up basket from underneath and a free throw to give Cromwell a 17-15 halftime lead.

The game really got interesting in the third quarter as the teams fought their way through seven lead changes and two ties before Cecunjanin broke a 26-all tie by scoring six of the game’s next eight points to give the Panthers a 32-28 lead with 1:58 on the clock.

But Olivia Cunningham responded with two straight baskets in the final minute and a half to lead the Warriors back to a 32-all tie as the team’s entered the final eight minutes.

Cecunjanin hit a free throw early in the fourth quarter to give Cromwell a 33-32 lead, but that was to be the Panthers’ last lead of the night.

Valley simply dominated the next five minutes, holding the Panthers scoreless while Bradbury scored on a drive through the lane and Allen hit a 15-footer. Bradbury then hit two 3-point bombs in a row, the second coming off a pretty feed from Ava Cunningham ,who drove to the rim, spun just before she reached the hoop and threw a perfect 15-foot, one-handed strike to Bradbury in the corner.

Bradbury’s two 3-pointers extended the Valley lead to nine at 42-33, but the Warriors weren’t quite finished. Olivia Cunningham hit a pair of free throws, sister Ava added another and Grow scored on a layup off Olivia Cunningham’s steal and feed to make it 47-33 and all but seal the victory with 54 seconds to go.

Bradbury led all scorers with 23 points while adding 9 rebounds and 5 assists. Olivia Cunningham had 14 points and 5 rebounds while Grow chipped in with 8 rebounds and 4 points.

Cecunjanin had 17 points and 12 rebounds for the Panthers while Hickey added 13 points and 7 rebounds. Grodzicki finished with 5 points, 4 assists and 6 rebounds.

“We all just came together and played like a team,” Bradbury said of the big fourth-quarter run. “It really felt great.”

When asked if her spectacular performance Tuesday was in any way influenced by the recent news that North Branford’s Braeden LeBeau had been named the Shoreline Conference’s player of the year, Bradbury did not hesitate to share her thoughts on the matter.

“One hundred percent (it was),” she said. “This was my way of showing a lot of people out there that you should never underestimate any of us on this team, and that includes me.”

Point taken.

Ava Cunningham 1 3-6 5, Bitzy Klomp 0 0-0 0, Lily Grow 2 0-0 4, Abby Bradbury 7 4-8 23, Olivia Cunningham 6 2-2 14, Elizabeth Allen 2 0-0 4, Siena Schaller 0 0-0 0. Totals: 18 9-16 50.

Grace Mikan 0 0-0 0, Cameryn Hickey 5 0-0 13, Jessica Grodzicki 2 0-0 5, Nevaeh Clark 2 0-0 5, Adela Cecunjanin 7 3-6 17, Brynn Kovacs 0 0-0 0, Kayla Nappi 0 0-0 0, Sophia Santangelo 0 0-0 0. Totals: 16 3-6 40.

Score By Quarters
Valley Reg…6 9 17 18–50
Cromwell…..7 10 15 8–40

3-pointers: Valley–Bradbury 5; Cromwell–Hickey 3, Grodzicki 1, Clark 1.

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