WALLINGFORD — Only three teams have beaten the Hillhouse girls basketball team this season. Sheehan was the last to do it.
Saturday in the SCC Tournament quarterfinals, on their home floor, the Titans had a chance to do it again. They couldn’t, despite giving the Academics all they could handle.
Sixth-seeded Sheehan led the SCC’s No. 3 seed with 21 seconds to play before the Academics made two winning plays in the final seconds to escape 51-49.
Down a point with 21 seconds left after Sheehan took a 48-47 lead on Caitlyn Velez’s free throw, Hillhouse executed a perfect inbounds play under the basket that found an open Ranasha Frazier for a go-ahead layup with 13 seconds remaining.
Hillhouse senior guard Ciara Little then stole Sheehan’s ensuing inbounds pass and converted the turnover into a layup for a 51-48 advantage.
In the game’s wild final seconds, Sheehan could have tied Hillhouse with a 3-pointer, but never got the chance.
After Little’s play, Mackenzie Hemstock was fouled amid Hillhouse’s press with 1.1 seconds to go. The senior guard made the first free throw in a 1-and-1 situation and missed the second on purpose.
Frazier corralled the rebound for Hillhouse and time ran out on the Titans.
“I thought we did a good job controlling the tempo and had the lead late,” Sheehan head coach Mike Busillo said. “Little killed us when we were a little loose with the ball. And at the end of the day, she made a couple plays that won the game for them.
“I don’t want to say we lost it, they just made a few more plays than we did.”
Sheehan senior Liv Robles led all scorers with a season-high 28 points. Before taking its late lead, Sheehan stayed close in the fourth quarter by finding Robles at the high post or in the paint.
Despite drawing multiple double-teams, Robles scored 13 points in the fourth quarter, including 11 straight, when Sheehan rallied to within 45-43 with three minutes to play.
Hemstock tied the game at 45-45 on two free throws with 2:34 remaining. Hayleigh Lagase’s bank shot with 1:48 left capped a 6-0 run and put the Titans ahead 47-45.
“I was proud of the effort,” Busillo said. “The kids are obviously disappointed, but if we continue to play like this, we’ll be OK. Hillhouse has 19 wins for a reason.”
Robles was the only Titan to score in double figures. Both Lagase and Hemstock had seven points.
“I can’t be disappointed with our effort tonight,” Robles said. “We gave them all we had. It just came down to that one extra possession.
“We knew we were getting into their heads. They were a little frazzled.”
The Titans fell to 15-7 overall and will now await their pairing for the CIAC Class M state tournament. Sheehan ranks No. 13 in playoff points.
Hillhouse, ranked No. 4 in Class L, has now won 13 in a row since losing to Sheehan on Jan. 11. The Academics won their final 11 regular season games, including a 54-42 win on Sheehan’s Senior Night, and have now beaten Branford and the Titans in the SCC Tournament.
Hillhouse (19-3) will play No. 2 seed Hamden in Monday’s first SCC semifinal at Jonathan Law. Hamden, which trailed at halftime and was tied with No. 7 Amity heading to the fourth quarter, pulled away for a 71-61 win in its quarterfinal.
Monday night’s second semifinal features the SCC’s top seed, East Haven (17-4), which routed Foran 74-38 in Saturday’s opening quarterfinal at Sheehan. East Haven next plays No. 5 Wilbur Cross, a 54-45 winner over No. 13 seed Hand, which dethroned two-time reigning champ in Thursday’s first round.
On Saturday, there were no upsets, as all four higher seeds won. The Hillhouse-Sheehan game was the closest.
“Going against Sheehan, you know it’s going to be a battle,” Hillhouse head coach Catrina Hawley-Stewart said. “They get after the ball; they rebound. They have great post players and their guards can shoot.
“We got this game out of the way and, at the end of the day, we got it done. We played Sheehan twice this year and we knew they’d be relentless. But so are we, and it showed at the end of the game when we finished strong.”
Little did most of her damage in the fourth quarter, scoring 12 of her team-high 19 points in the game’s final eight minutes.
While Sheehan played well, the Academics seemed to turn every little Titans’ mistake into scoring opportunities. Little was involved in most of those plays.
Hillhouse opened up its biggest lead, 39-32, on back-to-back fastbreak layups by Little in the first minute of the fourth quarter. Little leaked out for a transition basket after Sydney Rossacci’s missed 3. Little then converted her own steal at midcourt into a layup.
“It’s hard to play a team like Hillhouse because they play at such a fast pace, but skill-wise I think we are equal to them,” Robles said. “We just had to calm down things at times. You don’t want it to be a frantic pace.”
Following Little’s baskets and a Sheehan timeout, Robles got the Titans back in the game by playing within the Titans’ offense. Her 11-point scoring spree included a traditional 3-point play and ended with a bank shot with 3:01 left and the Titans back within 45-43.
As Robles pointed out, the key to beating the Academics was to keep them from getting easy baskets in transition. In both losing and beating the Academics, Sheehan was able to keep Hillhouse under 60 points.
On Saturday, Sheehan once again kept the pace of play in its favor. The Titans worked the ball inside to Robles and hit key 3-pointers when Hillhouse seemed to be ready to go on a run.
The third quarter ended with Hillhouse up 35-30. Up until that point, neither team led by more than four points.
“We tried to mix up our defenses a little bit,” Busillo said. “But at the end of the day, I think we were a little loose with the ball, and that cost us.”
Sheehan trailed 23-22 at halftime, but tied the game 27-27 on a 3-pointer by Robles at the 5:44 mark of the third. Only two late turnovers forced by Hillhouse’s press allowed the Academics to open up their 35-30 lead by quarter’s end.
Sheehan led 13-9 after one quarter, as Robles scored the first five points for Sheehan and Hemstock hit a 3-pointer.
Despite starting five seniors, Hillhouse started slow. It didn’t hurt Sheehan’s upset bid that Hillhouse went 2-for-11 from the field in the first quarter and missed four of its first six free throws. The Academics’ cold shooting continued in the second quarter as they missed five of their first six shots.
“I thought we started a little timid,” Hawley-Stewart said. “The jitters got the best of them. But in the second half, we started to play our game.”
Sheehan took advantage of Hillhouse’s slow start by taking a 15-11 lead before Hillhouse tied the game 15-15. The Academics took the lead for good in the first half with 2:51 remaining, and extended their advantage with two more transition layups in the half’s final two minutes.