Published February 23. 2013 4:00AM
Norwich - The number Norwich Free Academy coach Bill Scarlata kept mumbling Friday night was 3.9. He said it more than once.
"It took me 3.9 years to get her to look at the basket to shoot," Scarlata said of senior Olivia Marks. "The last two weeks she's been good. She's a good shooter. She just doesn't shoot."
It was Marks' 3-pointer with 1 minute, 41 seconds remaining in overtime that put NFA's girls' basketball team ahead to stay in the Eastern Connecticut Conference tournament championship game, as the third-ranked Wildcats defended their title with a 41-39 victory over top-seeded Bacon Academy. NFA trailed by as many as six in the fourth quarter.
Marks, who scored 15 points, also defended Bacon's best player, Taylor McLaughlin, holding her to 11 points.
It was Marks who won the Most Valuable Player trophy, finally announced after the floor at NFA's Alumni Gym was cleared of a stream of rabid Wildcats' fans, including a guy in a cow costume, celebrating a second straight unexpected championship and the 14th in 20 seasons under Scarlata.
Funny Scarlata should be talking about offense at the game's end, too, after his team was 0-for-13 in the third quarter and trailed Bacon Academy 18-14.
The score after the first quarter was NFA 4-2. The Wildcats then led 13-5 at halftime, with Bacon, the fifth-ranked team in the state, scoring one basket in each quarter. Bacon (21-2) then went on an 11-0 run to start the third quarter.
"The worst halftime speech in the world," Scarlata called it.
The last 20.8 seconds of overtime was its own chapter of the story entirely, featuring missed free throws by three of the game's best players.
Bacon Academy's Michaela Siver made what appeared would be the winning play, getting an offensive rebound and hitting a jump shot from the left baseline, getting fouled. She completed the three-point play to make it 31-29 Bacon at the 20.8-second mark.
Cebria Outlow tied it for NFA with 9.2 seconds remaining, getting an offensive rebound and putting it back to make it 31-31, but just when the game appeared to have a clear path to overtime, Outlow was whistled for a foul on Bacon's Carlee Putnam near midcourt as Putnam tried to hustle it down court for the game-winner.
Putnam, though, missed the front end of a one-and-one with 3.7 seconds remaining and NFA's Olivia Lane secured the rebound, meaning there would be overtime after all.
There were 18 points in the overtime period, matching the entire output of the first half.
With Bacon leading 35-33, NFA's Marks connected on her 3-pointer, followed by a driving layup from sophomore Olivia Lane and a free throw from last year's MVP Alyssa Velles to complete a six-point Wildcats run.
NFA led by five when Bacon's Sarah Rogers made things interesting once again, hitting a 3 with 17 seconds left. NFA's Bell missed two free throws with 9.8 seconds left, but Putnam's shot following a mad dash down court was off target.
Velles had nine points and nine rebounds for NFA (17-5) and Lane added nine rebounds.
NFA had 23 offensive rebounds to four for Bacon, as the Wildcats completed another successful ECC tournament run by ousting the top two seeds in the semifinals and finals. NFA advanced to the title game with another overtime win Wednesday over No. 2 Ledyard.
"Realistically it was unexpected," Scarlata said. "I didn't think we could hold them down to so few points. They played with heart. ... It's always sweet when you're a big underdog and you play hard."
"It is exciting," Bell, the sophomore point guard, said of the pace the game took on in the fourth quarter and overtime. "You try not to get too excited because they're such a good team they feed off that, too. You have to try to keep your composure."
Bell called the feeling "ecstatic," especially after the Wildcats lost key contributor Kayla Donovan for the year with a knee injury and struggled off and on with other injuries.
"This is the game we've been working for the entire season," Bell said. "Going for the repeat. We made some mistakes, but we overcame it."
Putnam led Bacon with 14 points. McLaughlin, who added nine rebounds, did not practice Thursday and was playing on a sprained ankle, with coach Dave Shea calling her "80 percent."