If you lined them up for inspection Friday night, Alyssa Velles, more than anyone else wearing red, would have been voted best candidate to star in a Rockwell painting. Innocent demeanor, braces that deliver a silver, 50,000-watt smile and a cheerfulness that was a perfect disguise for the vicious assassin within.
And you can scour game tape of all the great ones who have worn the same red of Norwich Free Academy — Glenney, Rappahahn, Chapman, Gomez, Evans, Long and others — and you might not find anyone who ever played a better quarter under tense conditions than young Ms. Velles did in the fourth period of the Eastern Connecticut Conference tournament championship game.
She scored 14 of her team's 19 points, co-starring in a back-and-forth with Waterford's Adily Martucci that turned into a more modest version of Larry vs. Dominique, circa 1988. And finally, it was Velles, admitting she practices such shots with her brother at home, sinking a 12-foot runner from the right baseline, the kind of shot that would cement a game of H-O-R-S-E, only this one gave the Wildcats the ECC title.
NFA, left for dead trailing 20-6, reminded everyone watching that the sheriff in girls' basketball around here isn't quite ready for the rocking chair. The Wildcats picked off Waterford, 39-36, sending their student section — Wildcat Nation — into a jubilant pile at midcourt.
"She's pretty good," NFA coach Bill Scarlata said of Velles, with a grin that punctuated his understatement. "She's tough. She's fearless. She listens."
Velles, seen after the game holding the tournament's Most Valuable Player trophy, spent much of the postgame talking about other people. Olivia Marks' defense. Kayla Donovan's passion. The best she could muster about her symphony of a fourth quarter and NFA's rally:
"I definitely can't believe it," she said.
It began with the Wildcats down a point and 5:30 left. Martucci, headed to Quinnipiac, crossed over a defender, was fouled and made a 10-footer, 31-27 Lancers. Velles responded a possession later with a rainbow three, tying it at 31. From there:
Martucci hits a 12-footer, 33-31. After a free throw, Velles drives, scores and gets fouled. Fist pump from Scarlata. "MVP" chant from Wildcat Nation. Free throw good. Tie game. NFA gets the lead on its next possession, but Waterford ties it on Martucci's shot with 2:20 left. More from Wildcat Nation during a timeout: They begin jumping around like the Cameron Crazies, chanting rhythmically, "I believe that we will win, I believe that we will win."
How right they were. With 57 seconds left, Velles made the runner from the baseline and NFA never trailed again. She scored NFA's final point, too, on a free throw.
"The only quarter like that I remember," assistant coach Tom Pirie said, "was (Krista) Rappahahn) scoring 17 straight points against Manchester in the state tournament."
When Pirie learned that Velles scored 14 of NFA's 19 points, he said, "and it wasn't like Waterford was leaving her alone."
Indeed not. At the mention that Velles took over the game, Waterford coach Rob Von Achen said, "She could take over a country. If I were running a revolution, I'd want her on my side."
It was NFA's 13th ECC tournament title in Scarlata's 20 years. Maybe that makes the Wildcats the perpetual favorite. Although the line sure wasn't forming to the right a month ago with people who thought NFA had a shot at this, not when it was 8-7 and looking rather ordinary.
"This ranks right up there," Scarlata said, moments after he bear-hugged Pirie at the final horn. "We still can't score. But one thing they have is a lot of heart and guts."
This was the same Scarlata that said he was too old to climb the ladder moments earlier when the net-cutting ceremony began.
It turned out that Scarlata mustered the resolve. He got the final snip of the net, the same one that nestled Velles' baseline shot.
It wasn't long until a teammate saw Velles doing media interviews and politely interrupted to hang the net on Velles, who wore it like a necklace.
How fitting. Nobody found the net more on Friday night. And then it found her. A symbol of an all-time performance in an all-time program.
This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.