Taylor McLaughlin is Bacon Academy's unassuming champion
Taylor McLaughlin was in fourth or fifth grade when her friend Carlee Putnam's dad, Dave, asked her to go play AAU basketball.
"My mom said, 'Is she good enough?'" McLaughlin said, thinking back. "I didn't care. It was my best friend I was playing it with."
McLaughlin, a Bacon Academy junior and The Day's 2011-12 Girls' Basketball Player of the Year, is definitely good enough. She averaged 20.2 points and 11.2 rebounds per game this season as the Bobcats went 22-3 to win the Eastern Connecticut Large Division and the Class L state championship.
McLaughlin, Bacon's 5-foot-10 center/sometimes forward/sometimes guard, finished the No. 3 Bobcats' 50-49 victory over No. 2 Pomperaug in the Class L semifinals with 21 points, 20 rebounds and four blocked shots. In addition, she brought the ball up the floor against a suffocating press.
In the championship game against top-seeded and heavily favored E.O. Smith at Mohegan Sun Arena, she blocked E.O. Smith's final two shot attempts, as well as stealing the ball with 59 seconds remaining and the score tied, racing end-to-end with the game-winning basket. Bacon won 38-34.
It's not a sense of theater, but more her unassuming nature that makes McLaughlin so reliable in the clutch.
"Yeah, I get nervous, but it's just a thought that goes through my mind," said McLaughlin, who was an ECC Sportsmanship Award winner as a sophomore, when Gatorade Player of the Year Katie Mahoney was the Bobcats' star.
"We all know how to dribble the ball. We all know how to shoot. We all know how to play the game. I think from high school and AAU I've been in enough pressure situations, I feel like I don't want to act all nervous and scared."
In a quirk of fate, Bacon faced E.O. Smith in the final, led by one of the co-coaches of McLaughlin's AAU team, the Connecticut Cobras. Prior to the game, E.O. Smith coach Kirk Murad called McLaughlin "the best player in Connecticut nobody knows about." And he wasn't merely posturing.
"Immensely," Murad said of his level of respect for McLaughlin's demeanor and passion for the game. "I've coached her on and off since she was 12 or 11. I've seen her develop. She has a really good nose for the ball.
"She doesn't really get rattled and she so humble. She's better than 98 percent of the kids she plays against, but I don't think that ever entered her mind. She (isn't) playing because she thinks she's the best player."
Murad joked with McLaughlin in the hallway after the game, telling her he hated her for the moment, but would love her again when AAU season resumed the following day.
Murad's opinion of McLaughlin, who can shoot a 3-pointer as well as drive to the basket and somehow get the ball on the rim despite constant double-teams, is echoed by the coaches in the ECC whose teams defended her every day.
The only teams to beat Bacon this season were East Lyme (twice) and Waterford. And in the second loss to East Lyme, Bacon erased a seven-point lead by the Vikings in the fourth quarter as McLaughlin tied it with 8.7 seconds left on a pair of free throws.
"Some kids have it and some kids don't," said Norwich Free Academy coach Bill Scarlata, whose team was swept by the Bobcats. "Watching the state game, by her standards not the best game, but she makes a big play late, makes that big steal at halfcourt. She's a pretty good basketball player."
A Class L all-state pick, McLaughlin finished the season with 485 points, one of three players in team history to have scored 475 or more in a season, joining Mahoney and Jacquelyn Gaudette. McLaughlin has 790 career points, 676 rebounds, 298 assists and 172 steals.
"Playing with friends all along the way, wanting to always get better, always being able to improve," McLaughlin said. "It's just a fun game. That makes it easy to get up and go every day."