NEWTOWN - When her girls basketball team suffered an upset loss and was bounced out in the second round of the 2018 Class M state tournament, Jade Udoh used the sting of the early exit as motivation.
The defeat at the hands of Stonington was what St. Paul’s now-junior forward labeled as her “wake-up call” to get into the weight room and into the gym to develop her game into a more well-rounded version.
The approach worked for Udoh, who enjoyed a breakout 2018-19 season and helped lead the Falcons to a Class S semifinals berth.
Now, for Udoh and the rest of the Falcons, it’s time to get to work in the offseason yet again following their 56-45 loss to Trinity Catholic in a Friday night semifinal game at Newtown High School.
It’s a strong possibility that many of the teary-eyed, emotional Falcons will be using the pain of falling a few buckets short of a state title game appearance to make a return and take it one step further.
“We’ve got a pretty good group of juniors coming back. Our freshman team is actually really good. We’ll be all right,” Falcons head coach Joe Mone said. “One thing I told them was, ‘Cry a little. That’s normal. Everybody does. But you’ve gotta walk out there and see your family and friends. You’ve gotta hold your head up high. You had 24 wins this year, you won some championships, what’s there to be disgusted about?’”
“Everybody wants to be in the finals,” he added. “We play and we practice to get to the finals, but it just doesn’t always happen. Sometimes there’s setbacks, and like I told them, there’s worse things in life. There are a lot of setbacks in life. … They’ll be all right. They’re good kids. They’re resilient.”
The Falcons, who finished the season 24-3 and won NVL regular season and tournament championships, were exactly that on Friday night - resilient and tough.
When their final lead of the game, 5-4, disappeared midway through the first quarter, the Falcons were held in check the rest of the way. After the Crusaders took a 16-5 lead at the end of the period, they led by double digits for nearly the entire game. St. Paul cut the lead to eight at halftime, but Trinity Catholic extended the advantage to 10 to start the half and remained in control.
But the Falcons showed their character, Mone said, vigorously and quickly clawing their way back to within a 51-45 deficit with 49.7 seconds left, despite seeing Trinity’s lead balloon to 14 at the 2:57 mark.
“They played hard. They played their rear-ends off and I’m proud of them,” Mone said. “They had a great year. Why are you gonna hang your head? They played great all year, just a bad game. We had chances in the last four minutes where we had a two-shot foul or a one-and-one, and we missed. What are you gonna do? Sometimes it just doesn’t go your way. We played well all year, and unfortunately we didn’t play all that well [Friday], and we’re gonna go home.”
The Falcons now look ahead to next year, when they will have to replace five seniors, including starters Catherine Ciampi, Emma Cretella and sixth-man Morgan Kolb, three of St. Paul’s strongest defenders.
“With what we have coming back, we should be pretty good,” said Mone, who returns starters Udoh, Janessa Gonzalez and Olivia Heslin, as well as key perimeter defender Kailyn Bielecki. “Hopefully some of the younger kids will really work hard to make up for the kids we’re losing. Especially with how Catherine and Morgan played defense, we’re gonna have to find someone to do that so we can stay with what we normally do.”
The Falcons will also potentially find themselves in a different format with the CIAC girls basketball committee’s approval of a five-division state tournament. Depending on what division the two teams are placed in, a matchup with Trinity Catholic could potentially come sooner than the semifinal round.
“With the new format, I don’t know where we’re gonna end up,” Mone said. “Who knows where we end up? We could be up with schools with 1,400 kids. I’ll play where they put me. I don’t complain. I’ll go wherever they tell us to go.
Zack Carpenter can be reached at (860) 973-1811 or email@example.com