Pictured: Valley Regional will be playing in the CIAC Class M quarterfinals on Tuesday after rallying to beat North Branford in the second round of the tournament.

By Danny Atkinson
middlesexcountysports@gmail.com

DEEP RIVER — For the first time in nine seasons, Valley Regional girls basketball has advanced to the quarterfinals of the state tournament.

The Warriors, who are seeded fifth in the Class M field, continued their magical season by rallying back from an eight-point deficit with just over 10 minutes remaining to defeat No. 12 North Branford 61-53 on Friday night.

Valley (21-4) cut the deficit to 42-41 at the end of the third quarter and then outscored the Thunderbirds (16-8) 20-11 in the fourth. It was the third meeting of the season between the Shoreline Conference teams, who split the first two.

Valley Regional will host No. 20 Montville (12-10) in the quarterfinals on Tuesday (7pm). Montville beat No. 13 Windham in the first round before edging No. 29 Oxford 49-48 on Friday. North Branford was attempting to advance to the quarterfinals for the first time in 20 years.

Shoreline teams also advancing in Class M included No. 1 East Hampton, 43-24 over No. 19 Stonington; and No. 7 Cromwell, 53-40 over No. 23 Wolcott. No. 22 Morgan was ousted by No. 6 Seymour 64-38. In Class S, No. 10 Old Lyme beat No. 7 Parish Hill 41-11, while No. 16 Coginchaug lost to No. 1 Thomaston 50-28.

After falling behind 42-34 with roughly 2:30 remaining in the third, the Warriors kicked off a 23-6 run to go up nine and secure the victory. Siena Schaller and Ava Cunningham quickly drained jumpers and Abby Bradbury made two free throws to make it a 1-point game entering in the fourth.

In the final eight minutes, Cunningham and Lily Grow hit consecutive 3-pointers to put Valley up five with less than six minutes remaining. The pair would combine for 11 points in the quarter.

Bradbury, who was recently named First Team All-Shoreline, led the Warriors with 18 points. The junior guard scored 12 in the first half and shot 10 of 13 at the free-throw line. The Cunningham sisters, Ava and Olivia, each scored 11 and Grow had 10. The Warriors shot 16 of 25 on free throws and hit six 3-pointers on the night.

Valley held Shoreline Player of the Year Braeden LeBeau to 12 points – just two in the fourth quarter. Keana Criscuolo was scored 13 points in the second half and finished with 19 and Callie Holzer scored 17.

The Warriors’ offensive success in the final minutes was a result of their improved ball movement and communication, which resulted in quality shots from midrange and deep. The players did a much better job of handling the ball after a first half that featured a slew of costly turnovers. This was a result of quality ball pressure by the Thunderbirds, forced passes and players losing the ball.

“I told them at halftime that we needed to take care of the basketball and give ourselves more scoring opportunities,” Valley coach Jaimie Bickelhaupt said. “We took too many early shots, so at halftime we talked about attacking the basket, not settling for outside shots and moving the ball to force North Branford to play defense. They did this a lot better in the second half.”

Said Bradbury: “Once we started moving the ball on offense, we did a great job. Our offense stems from our defense and when we get a great stop, chances are we will have a great offensive possession.”

Down 29-26 at halftime, Valley switched to a 2-3 zone in an effort to slow down the 6-foot LeBeau, who was overpowering defenders. The Warriors were slowly but surely able to limit her touches and defend her better while improving at boxing out. The zone eventually limited North Branford’s ability to score on dribble drives, which they repeatedly did at the beginning of the game.

During its comeback Valley they pressured the ball well, causing turnovers and forcing the T-Birds to take low-quality shots which resulted in multiple air balls.

“I think the 2-3 threw them off a little bit,” Bickelhaupt said. “We knew we had to keep LeBeau off the glass and I told them a deciding factor of our season would be successfully boxing her out. By doubling LeBeau more it helped us with rebounds. She’s a force down low.”

With the teams tied at 33 and 4:12 remaining in the third, North Branford took an 8-point lead on a putback by LeBeau and baskets from Criscuolo and Natalia Lucibello. Schaller and Ava Cunningham hit their aforementioned jumpers to kick off a 12-0 that concluded with the 3-pointer by Cunningham. A step-back jumper by Criscuolo made it 46-44 with 6:24 to go, but Grow immediately responded with a trey. After LeBeau scored at the rim, Schaller and Holzer traded layups.

Olivia Cunningham earned a steal and fastbreak layup to make it 55-48 with 1:18 remaining. The T-Birds turned it over, a clear sign that Valley had completely seized control.

Throughout the Warriors’ game-deciding run, North Branford looked overwhelmed by their zone. Almost all of the T-Birds’ perimeter shots were rushed and they struggled to move and protect the ball and could not gain offensive rebounds. North Branford lost multiple balls out of bounds or had it stolen, resulting in multiple baskets for Valley.

After two more points by the Warriors, Criscuolo kept the Thunderbirds alive with a deep 3 to make it 57-51 with 33 seconds remaining. Bradbury and Ava Cunningham sealed the win with a free throw and layup, respectively.

Both teams played well offensively in the first when they were able to earn shots. Holzer consistently beat defenders for open layups and scored nine points, and LeBeau was able to score over defenders and grab key rebounds. Meanwhile, Valley overcame its poor ball-handling to take a 14-11 lead with 3:26 remaining. Bradbury hit a 3-pointer in the opening minutes and repeatedly got to the line, ultimately making five free throws.

LeBeau and Holzer went on a 7-0 run with two putbacks and a trey to give their squad an 18-14 lead, and North Branford took advantage of turnovers to take a 21-19 lead.

Both offenses struggled mightily in the second, scoring a combined 15 points and giving the Thunderbirds their 29-26 halftime lead.

Valley on Tuesday will be facing what appears to be an elite Montville defense, which has held opponents under 50 points in 10 straight games. Bickelhaupt laid out what the Warriors will need to do offensively to win.

“We need to take care of the basketball, be disciplined and allow ourselves to go on more runs,” she said. “If we get stops and box out to get rebounds, then we can score in transition where we are at our best.”

“We just need to play hard every minute and focus on defense,” said Bradbury. “If we do that, our offense can succeed.”

NORTH BRANFORD (16-8)
Callie Holzer 7 0 15, Braeden LeBeau 5 2 12, Adriana Hills 0 0 0, Hanna Senerchia 0 0 0, Keana Criscuolo 9 0 19, Delaney Norman 0 0 0, Catherine Poulin 0 0 0, Natalia Lucibello 2 0 4, Marissa Ricardo 1 0 3. Totals: 24 2 53.

VALLEY REGIONAL (21-4)
Ava Cunningham 4 1 11, Abby Bradbury 3 10 18, Bitzy Klomp 0 0 0, Liz Allen 1 1 3, Olivia Cunningham 5 1 11, Siena Schaller 3 2 8, Lily Grow 4 0 10, Regan Grow 0 0 0, Sharmel Rivera 0 0 0, Rubee Cecchini 0 0 0. Totals: 20 15 61.

Score By Quarters
North Branford…..21  8 13 11–53
Valley Regional….19  7 15 20–61

3-pointers: Valley–Bradbury 2, A. Cunningham 2, Grow 2; North Branford–Holzer 1, Criscuolo 1, Ricardo 1.

No. 1 East Hampton 43, No. 19 Stonington 23

STONINGTON (12-11)
Sophia Fernholz 1 0 2, Anne Drago 0 5 5, Mackenzie Pettegrow 0 0 0, Gabby Dimock 3 1 7, Rory Risley 3 1 7, Olivia Fustini 0 0 0, Sierra Lund 0 0 0, Emily Obrey 1 0 2. Totals: 8 7 23.

EAST HAMPTON (22-2)
Amber Murphy 0 0 0, Olivia DeMartino 0 0 0, Liana Salamone 10 0 23, Delaney Russell 0 0 0, Jackie Russell 4 3 14, Jordan Murphy 1 0 2, Katie Ireland 1 1 4, Madison Yorker 0 0 0. Totals: 16 4 43.

Score By Quarters
Stonington………7  7  1  8–23
East Hampton..13 8 15 7–43

3-pointers: East Hampton–Salamone 3, J. Russell 3, Ireland 1.
Up next: East Hampton hosts No. 6 Seymour, Tuesday, 7pm.

No. 7 Cromwell 53, No. 23 Wolcott 40

WOLCOTT (10-12)
Amanda Sullivan 7 1-2 17, Mayci Abou Arrage 1 2-2 4, Julia Sullivan 2 0-0 4, Mimi Reilly 1 0-0 2, Amber Vincent 3 2-4 8, Lauryn Sinclair 2 1-2 5, Rebecca Wood 0 0-0 0, Megan Iasevoli 0 0-0 0, Gianna Capaldo 0 0-0 0, Miley Guerrera 0 0-0 0, Olivia D’Alessio 0 0-0 0. Totals: 16 6-12 40.

CROMWELL (19-5)
Grace Mikan 4 0-0 12, Cameryn Hickey 2 10-12 15, Jessica Grodzicki 4 1-2 11, Neveah Clark 2 0-0 6, Adela Cecunjanin 2 2-4 6, Kayla Nappi 0 0-2 0, Brynn Kovacs 1 1-3 3, Abigail Burgess 0 0-0 0, Hope Greaves 0 0-0 0. Totals: 15 14-23 53.

Score By Quarters
Wolcott……8 11 11 10–40
Cromwell…8 11 12 22–53http://www.middletowncthalloffame.org/home.html

3-pointers: Wolcott–A. Sullivan 2; Cromwell–Mikan 4, Clark 2, Grodzicki 2, Hickey 1.
Up next: Cromwell hosts No. 2 Bacon Academy, Tuesday, 7pm.

No. 1 Thomaston 50, No. 16 Coginchaug 28

COGINCHAUG (12-11)
Hannah Nielsen 1 3-6 5, Sophie Farr 1 0-0 2, Serena Fournier 2 0-0 4, Katie Farr 4 0-1 8, Alyssa Woodward 1 0-0 2, Mia Poturnicki 2 0-0 4, Allison Strang 1 1-2 3, Chloe Shafir 0 0-0 0. Totals: 12 4-9 28.

THOMASTON (18-3)
Aurelia Barker 2 0-0 6, Kylie Decker 1 0-0 3, Nicole Decker 9 3-5 22, Payton Mozelak 1 0-0 3, Ava Harkness 5 0-2 10, Emma Sanson 1 1-2 3, Kiera Fainer 1 0-0 3. Totals: 20 4-9 50.

Score By Quarters
Coginchaug…..6  6 11  5–28
Thomaston….10 22 13 5–50

3-pointers: Thomaston–A. Barker 2, K. Decker 1, N. Decker 1, Mozelak 1, Fainer 1.

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