Pictured: Holy Cross’ Cayla Howard faces great defense from Valley’s Abby Bradbury during the second quarter of Monday’s Class M semifinal game. (Photo by Paul Augeri) 

By Paul Augeri

MERIDEN – The Valley Regional girls basketball team’s winningest season in this century ended in the semifinal round of the CIAC Class M tournament.

Forced to play catch-up from the final minutes of the first quarter onward, the 22-win Warriors lost to undefeated and top-seeded Holy Cross 57-50 at Maloney High School.

Senior Cayla Howard scored a game-high 22 points and junior dynamo Mya Zaccagnini added 21 to lead the Crusaders into the final this weekend at Mohegan Sun Arena. Holy Cross (26-0) will meet No. 2 Bacon Academy, which knocked off No. 3 East Hampton 30-26.

Junior Abby Bradbury led the Warriors with 19 points and junior Lily Grow contributed 16 for the Warriors.

“The work that we put in It’s the first time they’ve been here in I don’t even know how long,” said Valley coach Jaimie Bickelhaupt, who lauded her players – specifically Ava Cunningham and Bitzy Klomp, the team’s only seniors — for putting in the work in the summer and fall required to do what they did – go 22-5 and make the program’s deepest postseason run in nearly 25 years.

Olivia Cunningham (22) and Abby Bradbury embrace after time runs out on Valley’s season in the Class M semifinals. (Photo by Paul Augeri)

“The work you put in in the offseason shows in March,” Bickelhaupt said, “and because of that I think they were able to do some really great things this year. I think the moment got to us a little bit in the beginning of the game, the nerves and anxiousness and all that type of stuff. But now that we’ve been here once, I’m expecting to be here again and with a different outcome.”

The Warriors’ shots weren’t falling early as they fell behind 15-12 at the end of the first quarter. The deficit grew quickly in the second. Holy Cross’ array of scoring options – Zaccagnini, Cayla Howard, Shania Howard and Rachel Healey – ignited a 9-2 surge in the first four minutes to make it a 24-14 game.

Zaccagnini was the driving force to  the Crusaders’ offense, penetrating Valley’s defense time and again for layups when the Warriors’ help defense didn’t arrive, while the Crusaders’ glasswork kept many possessions alive for second- and third-chance scoring opportunities.

Valley cut its deficit to 24-17 with two free throws from Siena Schaller before Holy Cross pushed the lead to 11 (30-19) at the half when Healey came up with a steal and fed Zaccagnini for a length-of-the-floor layup with less than a second on the clock.

“I don’t think we did our best defensively on (Zaccagnini),” said Bickelhaupt. “She was a TOUGH player. What’s tough about her is she can shoot behind the arc, but has a quick first step, and she can shoot those floaters and she dishes to her teammates. We talked about giving her a step, and if she’s going to beat us it’s going to be (from) behind the arc. And we didn’t do a very good job of that. I think we played a little too much up on her at times and then she beat us toward the middle of the floor and it opened up more.

“I think we also had lapses boxing out, which gave them two, three, four and sometimes more opportunities with the ball, and their big girls are tough down low and were able to finish some of those. I think if we cut those even in half, this would have been a different game toward the end.”

Valley made a run at Holy Cross’ lead in the opening minutes of the second half. Bradbury, as she has so many times this season, took over when her team needed her most. Following a coast-to-coast layup by Grow, Bradbury hit a jumper and a 3-pointer on consecutive trips to close the deficit to 31-26.

Two layups from Zaccagnini pushed the Crusaders’ lead back to nine at 35-26, but another 3 from Bradbury and a jumper from Klomp made it a 35-31 game with 3:52 left in the third quarter as Valley went at Holy Cross’ zone defense and kicked the ball out for open looks.

Holy Cross went back into overdrive, scoring eight consecutive points capped by Cayla Howard’s three-point play, and led 45-34 after three.

The Warriors fell behind by 13 early in the fourth quarter but managed to get within eight, at 53-45, with 1:21 remaining on a putback by Grow. Down 10 with less than a minute left, Valley had chances at the free-throw line to get it close but could not cash in, going 3 of 6 in a 40-second span.

“I was exhausting digging ourselves out of a hole,” Bickelhaupt said. “We gave ourselves opportunities to score when the close was stopped and we don’t put them in. We shoot probably 20 minutes of free throws a day. We have to put those in when they matter.”

Ava Cunningham 1 1 3, Abby Bradbury 7 2 19, Bitzy Klomp 1 0 2, Liz Allen 0 0 0, Olivia Cunningham 3 2 8, Siena Schaller 0 2 2, Lily Grow 7 2 16, Regan Grow 0 0 0, Rubee Cecchini 0 0 0. Totals: 19 9 50.
Shania Howard 1 0 2, Madelyn Neibel 0 0 0, Mya Zaccagnini 9 3 21, Nadia Pelosi 0 0 0, Isabella Lombardo 0 0 0, Maeve Perrone 0 0 0, Nyasia Smith 3 1 7, Kayla Howard 9 3 22, Rachel Healy 1 3 5. Totals 23 10 57.
Score By Quarters
Valley Regional…12   7 15 16–50
Holy Cross……….15 15 15 12–57
3-pointers: Valley–Bradbury 3; Holy Cross–K. Howard 1.

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