Pictured: East Hampton defenders Amber Murphy (1) and Jordan Murphy (21) take away space in the middle from Braeden LeBeau in the third quarter. (Photo by Paul Augeri)

By Paul Augeri

EAST HAMPTON — As times goes by, some things don’t change. Like the East Hampton girls basketball program, again here at the end, playing for the Shoreline Conference championship.

The top-seeded Bellringers are headed to the final for the fourth consecutive year, with the hope of capturing a third straight title, after defeating North Branford 53-37 in the tournament semifinals on Wednesday night.

While a veteran core led East Hampton to the last three finals, a largely young bunch has charted its own course. Freshman Liana Salamone, a First Team All -Shoreline pick, hit 12 of 14 free throws and finished with a game-high 26 points.

Meanwhile, sophomore Jackie Russell scored 10 of her 13 points in a six-minute stretch spanning the second and third quarters, with Salamone contributing 8, as East Hampton turned a one-point lead into a 13-point advantage that the T-Birds could not overcome.

Liana Salamone strips the ball from North Branford’s Braeden LeBeau on this third-quarter possession. Salamone scored 26 points in East Hampton’s 53-37 win. (Photo by Paul Augeri)

“It’s just a real good testament to what these kids have been doing all year,” Bellringers coach Shaun Russell said. “They’ve been staying real focused on the day to day, and we’ve never gotten too far ahead of ourselves.”

Russell’s regular lineup features Salamone, Russell, sophomore Delaney Russell, junior Jordan Murphy and senior Madison Yorker, who will now experience the Shoreline championship atmosphere for the fourth time.

“With this group’s experience level, this wasn’t even something that was being discussed,” Shaun Russell said, “(although) it’s always in the back of your mind in terms of as you’re going through each week and how things line up and how you’re playing.

“Madison Yorker, one of her goals was to get back to this game as a senior, to get there four times in a row. But it was not something driving us daily. we really did an nice job of focusing on the next opponent and getting through it. Once the tournament started we tried to keep that same approach.”

East Hampton (20-2) will meet No. 3 seed Valley Regional (19-3), vying for a first conference title, on Saturday at 7pm at Morgan. The Warriors defeated No. 2 Cromwell 50-40 in their semifinal on Tuesday.

Yorker was the catalyst in the Bellringers’ 2-3 zone defense that pressured North Branford’s Braeden LeBeau in the low post every step of the way. The 6-foot-4 senior, who was voted Shoreline Player of the Year by the conference’s coaches, had 18 points and 12 rebounds, but wasn’t the factor the T-Birds hoped she would be.

“We definitely do have some trouble when it comes to teams sitting us in a 2-3 zone,” coach Sabrina LeMere said. “Honestly, with our girls it becomes a little bit of a mental block and they lose confidence in themselves when they should have the utmost confidence in themselves, because they have the tools to succeed against something like that and the skills to succeed against something like that.”

“They worked hard all season and we made it this far, which was great,” LeMere added. “Did I want and see more for them? Yes, I did. At this point we’ve got to bounce back. We have a state tournament to worry about and that’s what matters now.”

North Branford held its last lead of the night at 19-17 on a Callie Holzer 3-pointer with 4:16 left in the second quarter.

The Bellringers responded with a triple of their own, by Olivia DeMartino, and Jackie Russell drained her first of the night soon after to put East Hampton up 23-19.

The T-Birds turned the ball over on their next three possessions and the Bellringers produced points off of each — a layup by Salamone, a Salamone bucket in transition and free throw for the three-point play, and the front end of a one-and-one by Salamone — to take a 29-19 lead at the break.

“We did a good job focusing on possession by possession and maximizing them to get the best shot we could all night,” Shaun Russell said. “We figured if we could get good looks and we made enough of them, that puts pressure back on them. Now they’ve got to score. Once the margin got where it was comfortable and they had to start chasing us some, that started to play to our strength a bit.”

North Branford got a bucket from LeBeau in the low post in the opening seconds of the second half, but Jackie Russell buried another 3 to push East Hampton’s lead back to double digits. The Bellringers finished the quarter on a 9-2 run and headed to the fourth with a 41-27 lead.

Shaun Russell said the Bellringers are playing loose and together right now. With the CIAC Class M tournament also ahead, the timing couldn’t be better.

“This team chemistry-wise has been great since day one and I really attribute that to the seniors, Madison Yorker and Liz MacDonald,” he said. “They do a great job of leading and keeping everything focused on the right stuff, and the players have been supportive of each other, which is hard when you’re young.”

Callie Holzer 3 0-0 8, Braeden LeBeau 6 6-12 18, Keana Criscuolo 4 1-3 10, Delaney Norman 0 0 0, Marissa Ricardo 0 0 0, Natalia Lucibello 0 1-2 1, Tessa Juniver 0 0 0. Totals: 13 8-17 37.

Liana Salamone 7 12-14 26, Delaney Russell 1 0-1 2, Jackie Russell 4 2-2 13, Jordan Murphy 1 0-2 2, Madison Yorker 0 0-0 0, Amber Murphy 2 0-0 4, Olivia DeMartino 2 0-0 6, Katie Ireland 0 0-0 0. Totals: 17 14-19 53.

Score By Quarters
North Branford…11   8   8 10–37
East Hampton….10 19 12 12–53

3-pointers: North Branford–Holzer 2, Criscuolo 1; East Hampton–J. Russell 3, DeMartino 2.

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