BRISTOL - Catherine Ciampi grabbed the ball in the paint and hesitated.
Standing just 5-foot-4, the St. Paul senior guard isn’t used to offering up a variety of post moves. Most of her damage is done on the perimeter and on defense for the Falcons’ girls basketball team.
But there she was on Tuesday night as the taller Bloomfield players hovered over her in the lane. Undeterred, the fearless, right-handed Ciampi switched the ball to her left hand, got fouled and banked in the shot to deliver what was essentially a game-sealing, knockout blow, even at the 4:54 mark of the third quarter.
The layup sent the packed St. Paul crowd into a frenzy, as teammates ran off the bench and red-faced Joe Mone let out a loud, booming howl with a fist pump - the most animated the St. Paul coach would be all night.
“I don’t even know. I just kind of stopped,” Ciampi said when asked how she was able to pull off the basket. “It’s kinda hard being small because I’m like, ‘Oh God.’ I didn’t want them to block it. I didn’t even know it went in until I was on the ground looking up and saw it went in.”
Ciampi’s basket plus her ensuing free throw gave the third-seeded Falcons a 43-29 lead over No. 11 Bloomfield. It was the highlight of a 22-7 third quarter run that led to an 84-50 victory that sent them to their first semifinal berth since 2014.
“I went crazy because Catherine’s just so small, but then it went down, and I was like, ‘Oh yeah,’” senior Morgan Kolb said.
It was fitting that one of the victory’s most vital plays came from one of the Falcons’ non-star players. It perfectly encapsulates why they have been able to ascend to a 24-2 record - including a 19-game win streak - and are now one win from the Class S state championship game.
Mone knows the production he’s going to get from Janessa Gonzalez and Jade Udoh. But in each of St. Paul’s biggest games this season, he was aware that efficient performances from both would only take the Falcons so far.
In those higher profile matchups against the top tier programs on the schedule, they needed a third player to step up. All season, someone has. Often, it’s been multiple players filling big roles.
Whether it was Kolb hitting a timely three, Ciampi nabbing a big steal, Olivia Heslin netting a momentum-seizing bucket or Kailyn Bielecki and Emma Cretella putting the clamps down on opponents’ top offensive players, St. Paul has received those contributions.
In the season’s most critical matchup Tuesday, Udoh and Gonzalez again provided the bulk of St. Paul’s offense, combining for 54 points.
But all game, it was the other players who provided the backbone for the Falcons’ big second half.
“Morgan, Liv and Kailyn really stepped up,” Ciampi said. “Jade and Janessa are great, and they’re really consistent, but it’s the other players that really help us out and are able to get the job done.”
Kolb came off the bench to score 13 points, including four free throws, as part of the Falcons’ third quarter scoring barrage, two of which were produced by the 6-foot-0 senior grabbing an offensive rebound and getting fouled.
She also converted a backdoor lay-up fresh off the bench for a spark in the first period, knocked down a three for a 10-point lead in the second quarter and on Bloomfield’s ensuing possession, she blocked Warhawks star sophomore Leigh Ann LaBad on a mid-range jumper.
Heslin (6 points), Bielecki (5), Ciampi (4) and Cretella (5 assists) didn’t put much of a dent in the scoring column. But each made one or two key plays throughout the night.
“I was really happy with our bench. Our bench gave us a big lift,” Mone said. “Morgan Kolb off the bench was huge [with] points and defense and had a couple blocked shots. Little Kailyn Bielecki was tough, covering their best players when our two starters got in foul trouble, so I was real happy with those two.
“Heslin had a good game, and Bielecki goes unnoticed because she probably averages two or three points per game, but the kid [defends] the other team’s best player. Her and Emma. And when Emma gets in foul trouble, she pressures even more. If you’re gonna win this thing, it’s cliche, but it’s gotta be a team effort because the farther you get, everybody [is game planning to stop Gonzalez and Udoh].”
One of the most impressive displays of the night was the individual defense of Bielecki, Ciampi, Cretella and Kolb on LaBad. The foursome rotated the assignment of guarding LaBad, and they each did a standout job.
LaBad scored a team-high 24 points (12-of-17 at the free throw line), but it took her more than 20 shots to hit that mark, being forced into a ton of difficult, contested looks in the lane. Over and over, the Falcons were physical with her and made her earn her buckets.
“She was definitely a challenge to guard, but obviously we stepped up to the plate,” Kolb said. “The goal was to force her left, and I think it worked out because she forced a lot of shots.”
For Mone, getting production from them was nothing new. When Gonzalez got into foul trouble in the NVL Tournament title game, Kolb and Ciampi hit some big shots to win the championship.
Tuesday night, it was repeat performances all around that fueled the Falcons.
“I thought our role players played extremely well,” Mone said. “Jade and Janessa are Jade and Janessa, but you’ve gotta have everybody else. That’s what’s made us successful. They picked each other up, and they don’t panic. I like that. They got frenzied, but they hung in there.”
Zack Carpenter can be reached at (860) 973-1811 or