Published February 09. 2014 4:00AM
Norwich - It started as a game against the team with the best offensive player in the state, with two more games looming next week against some of the best competition in the Eastern Connecticut Conference.
By the end of the day, though, Norwich Free Academy coach Bill Scarlata was breathing a little easier.
The matchup between fifth-ranked NFA and RHAM, the state's 11th-ranked team with a player, Sarah Veilleux, who scored 42 points in her previous game and has a season-high of 45, never quite materialized.
Veilleux, the 2013 Gatorade Connecticut Player of the Year who will play next season at Division I Saint Joseph's (Pa.), was introduced as a member of the starting lineup and promptly sat back down on the bench due to a sore back. She did not play.
NFA won 60-22, but more than that, Scarlata was pleased with the Wildcats' hustle, despite the lopsided score.
"The way we've played the last few weeks … we've kind of plateaued a little bit, we've been struggling," Scarlata said. "I thought we played harder tonight. We got after some loose balls. That's the most I've seen our kids dive for loose balls all year. They know more than I do; they know we've got to play better."
Part of the reason for what Scarlata calls NFA's "struggles," despite the team being 16-1 overall and having clinched at least a share of the ECC Large Division title, is that the Wildcats' own Division I standout, Alyssa Velles, is coming off a bout with mononucleosis.
Velles, who will play at Saint Peter's next season, returned in Friday night's victory over Bacon Academy, but Scarlata said he tried to rest her as much as possible. On Saturday, she came out firing, hitting a 3-pointer 18 seconds into the game and finishing the first quarter with 13 of her game-high 17 points.
Velles scored NFA's first eight points and hit three 3s in the quarter, including banking one in from long range at the buzzer. Freshman Hailey Conley added 11 points and Olivia Ouellet had nine. The Wildcats outscored RHAM 14-0 in the first quarter, blanking a team for the first eight minutes for the second straight night.
"I'm trying to get my shooting back," Velles said. "I was still going to school, but I would have to sit and watch practice. It was tough. I'm glad to be back for the Ledyard and New London games and for the ECC tournament."
NFA, 9-0 in the Large Division, next plays at Ledyard (15-2, 8-1) for the division title on Tuesday. A win will give the Wildcats the league title outright, while a Ledyard victory would force a share of the championship.
NFA then goes to New London (15-2) on Friday night for the teams' only matchup of the year on what is New London's Senior Night. New London has not lost to another ECC team, falling twice to ninth-ranked Weaver.
"We have two big games next week," Velles said. "We have to play hard and keep our composure."
"New London could have the best starting five in the league. (Coach Kerrianne Dugan) has done a nice job with that team," Scarlata said. "They're talented and they're young. And last time we played Ledyard we were ahead by 21 and they cut it to seven.
"We have our work cut out for us."