If head coach Jaclyn Woitkowski has her way, the Wilton girls basketball team will never play another game without point guard Casey Pearsall.
However, if it does happen again, the Warriors now know they can handle life without their senior leader.
Wilton proved it Friday night, using a big third quarter and solid performances from sophomores Hayley English and Erin Cunningham to post a 43-32 road victory over New Canaan.
Pearsall, a standout three-sport athlete who has signed to play lacrosse at Notre Dame, was in New York City Friday night as one of 12 national finalists for the Wendy’s High School Heisman Award.
But the Warriors (1-1), coming off a 55-42 loss to Darien in the season-opener Wednesday night, made up for it by outscoring New Canaan 16-3 in the third quarter to take an insurmountable 35-23 lead.
Cunningham scored 10 of her team-high 12 points in the third and English, running the floor at point guard in Pearsall’s absence, finished with seven points, eight steals and six assists.
Wilton played with three sophomores and a freshman in the starting lineup, and the only two players to come off the bench were also sophomores. Alyssa Malvarosa, a co-captain who scored three points to go along with five rebounds, three steals and two assists, was the only senior on the floor.
That certainly bodes well for the Warriors should they ever find themselves in this position again.
“This gives us a great glimpse into the future,” Woitkowski said. “We do need some more leaders on the court, so this was a good way to get some people to step up. It also gives the girls confidence that they can run an offense if Casey’s not in there because we’re not guaranteed Casey every game. She could foul out of a game, and this was just great practice for that.”
The absence of Pearsall actually helped English relax and play her own game, which produced steals on the defensive size of the court and decisive passing on offense. It was a far cry from the season-opener when English played tentatively in her first career start.
Many of the points Cunningham and the Warriors scored during the decisive third quarter came because English’s hustle on defense.
“She had a great game,” Woitkowski said. “We knew what we expected of her and she’s extremely capable. It’s hard when you have Casey Pearsall on the floor with you because Casey has speed that not many people can keep up with. Sometimes that speed doesn’t always allow us to look good. Tonight everyone was in synch with the tempo, and Hayley definitely had confidence tonight.”
New Canaan, now 0-2 after a loss to Greenwich in the season-opener, received 15 points from senior Kelly Armstrong and 11 points from senior Courtney Rogers. The Rams had a 20-17 lead late in the second quarter after countering a 9-0 run by Wilton with a 9-0 run of their own.
But New Canaan could not sustain anything against Wilton’s tough defense, managing just 12 points the rest of the night.
New Canaan head coach Kim Palmer didn’t raise her expectations in Pearsall’s absence because she knew how balanced the Warriors are.
“I think they’re a solid team all around,” she said. “I don’t think they rely on one person, so my expectations were that it was going to be a battle whether Casey was there or not. They’re a good team, they have good players and they’re well rounded.”
New Canaan spent all night trying to get the ball into the hands of Rogers on the outside, but Wilton always seemed to have two sets of hands in her face and she finished just 3-for-15 from behind the 3-point arc. The Rams went 11-for-37 from the field while Wilton connected on 15 of 33 shots.
“It’s nothing Courtney hasn’t seen before and it’s nothing we haven’t seen before as a team,” Palmer said. “It was really the third quarter that took us out of it.”
English got it all going, setting up center Erica Meyer (seven points, eight rebounds, two blocks) off a steal on defense then using a theft of her own to score on an open layup to put Wilton up 23-20.
Wilton’s defense, bolstered by the hard work of Malvarosa, forced eight New Canaan turnovers in the third, leading to opportunities on the other end and an 8-for-13 effort from the foul line. Cunningham did a lot of that on her own, going 6-for-8 from the line to go along with two field goals. That included a traditional 3-point play to make it 33-23 with 1:34 left. At one point, Cunningham was Wilton’s only offense, scoring the final seven points of the third quarter to give Wilton a 35-23 lead.
“She did a great job staying within herself and knowing her role on the floor,” Woitkowski said. “She didn’t get rattled. She knew when to take a shot and when to take it to the hole, and I think that really gave the team a spark.”
Wilton also got a spark from Cannavino, who didn’t log many minutes, but made the most of her time on the floor. Cannavino had three rebounds, a blocked shot and one assist in just a few minutes after entering the game in the second quarter, allowing the Warriors to turn a two-point deficit into a 15-8 lead.
Brosko, who took Pearsall’s place in the starting lineup, finished with eight points, including six in the fourth quarter to help the Warriors put the Rams away.
Wilton is hoping to make this a season to remember, but even if it fails, there’s always next year, and the year after that.
“What you saw on the floor tonight is going to be around this season, and two years after that,” Woitkowski said. “So hopefully we’re building something.”