BRISTOL - Moments before the St. Paul girls basketball team tipped off its Class S quarterfinal round game against Bloomfield on Tuesday, two of the Falcons’ emotional leaders had something to say.
Huddled in a circle right after pregame warmups ended, Emma Cretella and Jade Udoh passionately gave their teammates a message.
“[Jade] just said that intensity’s gonna be the key to this game, and Emma said, ‘Let’s make all this season for something,’” St. Paul senior Catherine Ciampi said. “We didn’t work all this season just to come here and blow it tonight. We really just got the job done.”
The third-seeded Falcons certainly embodied Udoh and Cretella’s fervor, taking care of business in an 84-50 win, just as they have all postseason. They have blitzed opposing offenses, wreaking havoc with their full-court press and man-to-man pressure defense.
And on offense, St. Paul has scored at will, dominating its three tournament opponents (Coventry and Parish Hill were the first- and second-round victims) by a total of 225-103, an average victory margin of 40.7 points.
It’s been an easy path thus far, but fans should not expect such a dominant run in the semifinals, as No. 7 Trinity Catholic (20-5) awaits the Falcons (24-2) at 7 p.m. tonight at Newtown High School.
“Trinity’s the real deal. Two similar teams with similar builds. One big kid, one guard,” St. Paul coach Joe Mone said. “We run a little more than they do, but I don’t know. It’s gonna be a good game. It’ll be a good one. We figured this is what would happen, and we got what we asked for.”
On paper it’s a juicy matchup between teams built in a similar vein, both featuring a dynamic, powerful one-two punch inside and out.
St. Paul boasts junior guard Janessa Gonzalez and 6-foot-1 junior forward Udoh, who combined for 54 of the Falcons’ 84 points against Bloomfield.
Trinity Catholic has junior point guard Caitlyn Scott and 6-foot-1 senior center Iyanna Lops, who posted 35 of the Crusaders’ points in a 52-34 upset over No. 2 Housatonic.
Either pair could be argued as the top duo in the Class S field, perhaps even in the entire Nutmeg State.
The guards are the engines that run their respective teams, using savvy and quickness to penetrate defenses and create offense for themselves or teammates.
The bigs are versatile athletes who can rack up boards and move the ball - Udoh tallied 13 rebounds and six assists in the quarterfinals; Lops had 33 points, 16 boards, five blocks and four assists in the second round.
“I don’t wanna say ‘mirror image.’ But it’s pretty much similar look-wise, but a little bit different styles,” said Mone, whose defense must also contain the Crusaders’ third star, guard Kyah Nowlin, who scored 17 points against Housatonic. “As you can see, [my team] will run with anybody. That’s what they’re geared for.
“I like the way we’ve been playing. We’ve had some games that are up and down, and we’ve had some games that are half-court, knock-em-out, drag-em-out brawls in the last month or so. So I guess we’re prepared the best we can be, so now it’s just about playing well. That’s it.”
Mone’s group, he said, still reaches too much and commits too many fouls. He’s tried to instill a change in his players all season to not be quite as physical in attempting to get steals, but at this point, the Falcons “are who they are,” in his assessment.
What they are is a team that has refused to back down or whimper throughout a 19-game winning streak that puts them in position to claim the program’s third state championship.
“They’re confident,” Mone said of his Falcons. “They have a thing about them where they don’t panic, and they think they’re supposed to win. Sometimes, that’s enough to get you through the next stage. If you’re coaching, do you want the kids to say, ‘OK, who’s next?’ Or do you want the kids to say, ‘Oh no. We’ve gotta play so-and-so’? I like our mentality. I like the way we’re playing. We’ve just got to keep it up another week. This is the big one Friday.”
Mone has guided St. Paul to five state championship games, winning two (2001, 2010) and losing three (1998, 2000, 2014). He believes that often it’s the semifinal game that poses a more difficult challenge than the final itself.
That’s because everyone knows what’s at stake in the semifinals, he says. He didn’t go as far as to say winning the title game is a less-daunting task. But winning the penultimate game has gotten his past players to a more comfortable state.
Over the past 20 years, St. Paul has lost in three state semifinals, all in Class S: to Valley Regional (46-39 in OT) in 1999, to Trinity Catholic (76-46) in 2003 and to Trinity Catholic again (66-33) in 2006.
“Sometimes [the semifinal game] is the hardest one, and then when you get [to the title game], I don’t wanna say it’s easy, but you’re relaxed. It’s like, ‘Wow. We got here.’ This is what we worked for,” Mone said.
“I tell my kids every year, ‘Listen, guys. Our goal is to play on the last day of the season.’ Is that a realistic goal all the time? No. But what do you want your kids to work for? Do you want your kids to work for eight wins and get bounced out? We work to play on the last day. Is it always gonna happen? No. Everything in life doesn’t happen the way you want it, but we’re gonna work hard as heck to get our chance.”
Zack Carpenter can be reached at (860) 973-1811 or