Published February 12. 2014 4:00AM
Ledyard — Adam Baber, steely-eyed, square-jawed and more serious than a surgeon, addressed his players thusly before the fourth quarter began Tuesday night:
"You are not losing this game," he said through a voice that was more confident than urgent.
Now comes the other part: Baber's team, the girls of Ledyard High School basketball, hadn't beaten Norwich Free Academy in 21 years.
"I was convinced," Baber said, "and when I looked them in the eye, they convinced me again."
It turned out that not even losing a double-digit lead deterred the Colonels, who closed the game on a 16-2 run and earned a share of the Large Division championship of the Eastern Connecticut Conference with fifth-ranked NFA after a 58-46 victory.
Ledyard (16-2, 9-1) snapped NFA's 11-game winning streak. And finally gets to hang a banner.
"This means so much," senior Ari Fustini said. "Not just winning the division. But ever since freshman year, we've been creamed by NFA. It's so big for Ledyard basketball."
Ledyard led 22-9 early and 37-26 in the third period before NFA used an 18-5 run to take a 44-42 lead with 5:29 remaining. Haley Conley's three-point play didn't merely give the Wildcats (16-2, 9-1) the lead, but perhaps created some doubt in the opponent that hadn't beaten them in two decades.
Except that the opponent played almost flawlessly the rest of the way.
"Age and maturity," Fustini said. "It began with Hutch."
"Hutch" is senior center Hannah Hutchins, whose three-point play gave Ledyard the lead for good at 47-44.
Michelle Klinikowski scored seven points in the final 5:29 while Fustini had six.
Ledyard made six of its eight free throws in the final 4:10.
"When you fall behind early like that, even if you come back, you expend so much energy that it's hard to close it out," NFA coach Bill Scarlata said.
"They made some big shots. They're a good team. We got what we deserved."
Earlier, Scarlata said, "sometimes, we get a little complacent."
Fustini, a senior, and classmate Olivia DelGrosso bear-hugged each other at the final horn, underscoring the significance of the win.
Much of the program's history was in the gym watching, too: former coaches Fred Tremalgia (the last coach at Ledyard to defeat NFA) and Allison Reyes, who resuscitated the program before Baber's hiring.
"Hey, I'm not going to outcoach Bill Scarlata," Baber said. "We had to rely on the girls stepping up. And they did a tremendous job."