Pictured: Shalyn Smith was lights out for the Blue Dragons on Thursday night with 10 field goals and a game-high 25 points. Smith scored 13 points in the second quarter when Middletown pulled away. (Photo by Paul Augeri)

By Paul Augeri

MIDDLETOWN – The only good thing about Middletown’s unexpected first-round ouster in the CCC tournament exactly two weeks ago? It gave the Blue Dragons time off to recharge, reset the bar and think about the mindset they wanted to have with the stakes higher at state tournament time.

“Our confidence was shaken, unquestionably, but I think the two weeks off helped,” coach Rob Smernoff said. “I tried to remind them that prior to the Conard game we won 16 out of 17. ‘So don’t let one game knock the confidence’ is what I told them.

“And they did a great job tonight.”

Thursday’s Class LL second-round game against No. 14 seed Stamford was officially a fresh start for No. 3 Middletown. The Blue Dragons outscored the Black Knights 19-3 in a six-minute stretch of the second quarter and rolled from there for a 70-51 victory.

Middletown (19-3) will host No. 11 Danbury in the quarterfinals on Monday at 7:45 p.m. as the back end of a doubleheader. The Middletown boys play Jonathan Law in a Division II first-round game at 5:45.

Sophomore guard Shalyn Smith scored 13 of her game-high 25 points in the second quarter, Shadae Bushay scored 18 points and Tyah Pettaway contributed 13. And Smernoff notched career win No. 200 in his 15th season with the program.

“It just clicked for us tonight,” said Smith. “We were ready to play.”

Senior Breanna Jacobs led Stamford (15-10) with 14 points and sophomore Chloe Sotell added 11. The Black Knights, who reached the FCIAC tournament final, were coming off a 53-42 win over Fairfield Warde in Class LL’s first round Monday.

“The FCIAC is a great league, and to be able to go through that tournament and make it to the final game, obviously you’re going to go through some tough teams and it’s great preparation for the state tournament,” Stamford coach Diane Burns said. “I just think we ran out of gas as a team. That took a lot out of us.”

Stamford was up to the task in the first quarter at least. The Knights recovered form a 7-0 deficit in the first two minutes and tied it at 11 on a 3-pointer by Sotell with 1:51 left in the quarter. Jacobs put back her own miss underneath 51 seconds later, and after Middletown turned it over, Samantha Albert drove the lane to cap a 7-0 run, giving Stamford a 15-11 lead after one.

The Knights led 17-13 two minutes into the second quarter, but Middletown took over. Specifically, Smith did. She scored seven straight points – a 3-pointer, a layup after stealing the ball, and two free throws – to give the Dragons a 20-17 edge with 4:38 left in the half.

A 3-pointer from Sotell on Stamford’s ensuing possession tied it at 20-20 with 3:24 to go before Middletown caught fire again, its defense setting up a big push on the offensive end. Pettaway had four points and Jada Bryant two, with Bushay assisting two of the three scores, before Smith supplied a 3-pointer and swished a floater in the face of a double team.

The 12-3 run sent Middletown into the locker room with a 34-23 advantage.

“We did not have enough juice in the tank to go against a great team (Middletown) and play hard for 32 minutes,” said Burns. “They created turnovers and capitalized, they were great in transition, they’re a fast team and they’re able to get to the rim, which we knew they would do from our scouting report. And we just didn’t stop it.”

Bryant, who plays in the middle, held her own on the defensive end and also scored 10 points.

Smith, who usually plays as a combo guard alongside seniors Pettaway and Bushay – all three can run the point – was given the keys to the offense Thursday and played with sky-high confidence.

“She played really well. I’m really proud of her,” Pettaway said. “She’s been working really hard for this moment. I think she was just mentally and physically prepared for tonight.”

Said Smernoff: “We know when we have her run the show, it builds her confidence up. It was the same thing in the Simsbury game (a win that garnered Middletown a Top 10 spot in the GameTimeCT poll). It was one of our main adjustments in the second half. We just said, ‘You’re the point guard.’ And today we did the same thing. We let Tyah and Shadae do their thing on the wing and we gave Shalyn the ball and let her run the show today.”

Middletown’s offense kept Stamford on the run and the Knights weren’t able to gain any ground on their end in the third quarter. The Dragons led 49-33 going into the fourth and led by no fewer than 15 points the rest of the way.

“What we wanted to make them do was work offensively,” Smernoff said. “They play a lot of teams that, because of their height, that just sag in a zone, so (Stamford) can run their offense and it doesn’t wear them out. So we wanted to make sure, every possession they had it, even if they scored, they had to work for it. I thought for the most part we really made them work on offense. That was a big part of our game plan.”

STAMFORD (15-10)
Breanna Jacobs 6 2-6 14, Isabella Edwards 3 1-2 7, Madison Lockery 2 1-2 5, Samantha Albert 2 2-2 6, Charlie Karukas 0 0-0 0, Chloe Sotell 4 0-0 11, Tiffany Cadet 1 0-0 2, Jade Hutchinson 1 1-1 3, Pauline Vlahakis 1 1-2 3. Totals: 20 8-15 51.

Shalyn Smith 10 3-3 25, Jada Bryant 4 2-2 10, Alexa DeSena 2 0-0 4, Tyah Pettaway 5 2-2 13, Shadae Bushay 7 2-4 18, Kaila Torres 0 0-0 0, Tajahnae Brock 0 0-0 0, Ava Studinski 0 0-0 0. Totals: 28 9-11 70.

Score By Quarters
Stamford……15   8 10 18–51
Middletown…11 23 15 11–70

3-pointers: Stamford–Sotell 3; Middletown–Smith 2, Bushay 2, Pettaway 1.

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