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Senior captain Taylor Salato and the East Haven girls’ basketball team came back from quarantine and gave Shelton a run for its money in a 40-38 loss in the first round of the SCC Division I Tournament last week. (Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
Sophomore Arielle Dupree and senior captain Erin Curran battle the Gaels for the ball during the Yellowjackets’ SCC Division I Tournament contest versus Shelton on March 17. (Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
Junior Kate Pycela hit three shots from beyond the arc on her way to netting 10 points when East Haven girls’ hoops went up against Shelton in an SCC playoff contest. (Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
After being forced to miss the final week of regular-season play due to a team quarantine, the East Haven girls’ basketball squad was able to return to the court just one day before the playoffs began. Despite missing out on some valuable preparation time, the Yellowjackets battled through the adversity and nearly pulled of a victory in the first round of the SCC Division I Tournament.
No. 9 seed East Haven was on the road to face No. 8 Shelton in the first round of the SCC Division I tourney, taking a 40-38 defeat against the Gaels on March 17. The Yellowjackets were down 12-5 after the first quarter, but battled back to trim the deficit to 21-17 at halftime. Shelton outscored East Haven 9-6 in the third quarter to take a 30-23 lead into the fourth. The Easties kept fighting and outscored Shelton 15-10 during the fourth quarter, although the Gaels were able to hang on for the two-point win.
Following their quarantine period, the Yellowjackets returned to practice on March 16. During that time away from the court, Head Coach Anthony Russell and his staff gave each player a list of workouts that they could do at home, including ball-handling drills. While East Haven only had one practice prior to playing Shelton in SCCs, Coach Russell said that his squad approached its first-round game like it typically would any playoff contest.
“You could definitely tell there were some cobwebs we had to get out. For the most part, it was a pretty good practice. We were able to get in there for three hours. We were able to get a lot of shots up and get back into it,” said Russell. “We went right to work like we normally do. We went over Shelton’s personnel, what we were going to do offensively [and] defensively. We attacked it like we normally would.”
The Shelton contest marked the first time that East Haven had played a game in 12 days. The Yellowjackets only scored five points in the first quarter, but won the second quarter by a 12-9 margin to make it a four-point game at halftime. Coach Russell said that Shelton used its strong defense to stymie East Haven at first, but he was pleased to see the Easties begin to find their stride during the second quarter.
“Shelton did a really good job defensively. We couldn’t penetrate in or get some of our shooters open on the perimeter,” Russell said. “In the second quarter, we started to do that a little bit better. We were finding gaps in their defense. We started to click better offensively.”
At halftime, Coach Russell gave the same message to his team that he did throughout the season: He wanted the Yellowjackets to attack early in the third quarter in order to gain some momentum. Russell was looking for East Haven to open up the second half like it was a brand-new game by starting hot on offense and bearing down on defense.
East Haven outscored Shelton 21-19 during the second half, but wasn’t quite able to complete its comeback bid. Although his team took the defeat, Coach Russell said that he felt proud of the Yellowjackets for battling until the final whistle.
“I’m super proud of them. It wasn’t easy. Each kid came ready to play every day. They went through all the protocols every day. They didn’t bat an eye. It’s what made them so resilient,” Russell said. “The message everyday was, ‘Don’t take anything for granted.’ They really embraced it.”
Senior captain Taylor Salato scored 15 points for the Yellowjackets in the game. Junior Kate Pycela hit three 3-pointers on her way to scoring 10 points, while sophomore Arielle Dupree had five points on the night.
The Shelton game marked Salato’s last playoff appearance in a Yellowjackets’ uniform. Russell said that the star forward has made her mark and then some as a basketball player in East Haven.
“She has been really important to this program. Taylor had to deal with a lot of adversity. She had major ankle surgery coming into her freshman year. Junior, year she really broke out,” said Russell. “This year, we had really high expectations for her. She was less than 200 points away from 1,000 points for her career. If we played a full season, she would have had it. She is going to leave this program as one of the best kids who have played here.”
Along with Salato, seniors Erin Curran and Brooke Mortimer served as captains for East Haven this season. Coach Russell called Curran one of the most athletic kids that he’s ever coached, saying that she’s a great competitor, shooter, and ball handler who will be missed next year. Russell added that Mortimer was always supportive of her teammates and did everything she could to help the club succeed.
While the matchup against Shelton marked the last playoff game for East Haven’s senior trio, it wasn’t the final time that they suited up for the Yellowjackets. On March 19, the Easties hosted Branford for their 2021 finale. The two teams were slated to play a regular-season game on March 15, but it didn’t happen that day due to East Haven’s quarantine. After East Haven and Branford both lost in the first round of the SCCs, the two teams got together to play two days later.
It was Senior Night for East Haven, and so it was only appropriate that Salato scored the last six points of the night to spur the Yellowjackets to a 55-51 victory versus the rival Hornets. Of the 11 games that East Haven played this winter, Coach Russell’s squad came out on the winning side five times.
“They were nice enough to come to our place and play us as a consolation game. We got to have our Senior Night,” Coach Russell said. “We came out and played well. Branford came back with 37 seconds left, but Taylor scored the last six. It was great for them to get their Senior Night and end with a win against their rival. We did our best to make it somewhat normal.”
Like many basketball teams in state, the Yellowjackets had to travel a bit of a bumpy road this winter. However, despite all the ups and downs, Coach Russell said that the 2021 edition of the Yellowjackets reminded him why he loves coaching basketball in East Haven.
“It was amazing. I realized how much I missed being out there with them every day,” said Russell. “I love teaching the girls the game of basketball. When you’re out there and you’re working with them, you forget all of the problems that are outside the lines. It was really a team effort. It was a community effort. It was wonderful to be back out there with them again.”