Girls Basketball Johnson leads St. Luke’s to fourth straight FAA title
NEW CANAAN — Already crowded with basketball trophies, the display case at St. Luke’s School’s athletic center will hold one more shiny girls basketball winner’s title.
Entering Saturday’s FAA Tournament final as three-time defending champions, the Storm were challenged by Sacred Heart Greenwich, but they weren’t about to see their long reign of supremacy halted.
Behind a balanced scoring effort and an effective defensive performance, top-seeded host St. Luke’s remained the gold standard in the FAA, capturing the league championship for the fourth straight season with a well-earned 53-43 win over second-seeded Sacred Heart before an enthusiastic crowd at Cary Gymnasium.
Senior forward Janelle Johnson scored a team-high 16 points, including four 3-pointers, while freshman guard Caroline Lau had 10 points and made two shots from beyond the arc for the victors (23-2, undefeated in the FAA). Johnson, who sparked the Storm with her impressive perimeter shooting, has 997 career points. She’ll look to get to the 1,000-point milestone in the team’s next game, which will occur in the NEPSAC Class B Tournament.
“Winning this title again means so much to us,” Johnson said. “I’ve been on this team for five years and this our fourth time getting (the title), including four in a row. These girls work very hard day in and day out at practices and everything. It really means a lot to our seniors.”
The Storm, who defeated King School (63-44) and Hamden Hall Country Day School (53-40) on their way to advancing to the tournament’s title game, held a slim 29-25 halftime lead against a spirited Sacred Heart squad.
“It always feels great to win this tournament, that is our first goal always, to win FAAs,” St. Luke’s coach Matt Ward said. “It’s fun to win FAAs, especially when you play teams that are competitive and play really hard. We battled against Hamden Hall on Thursday and because of that experience on Thursday, it helped us in today’s game. Sacred Heart is well-coached, they have good athletes and they work really hard, so we knew they were going to come out strong.”
The Tigers (18-6) received a team-best 14 points from senior center Sarah Eckerson and nine points from junior guard Leah Atkins. Sacred Heart were defeated by 23 points in their regular-season meeting against St. Luke’s, but made adjustments and hung with the FAA’s premier team on Saturday.
“I thought our team’s effort was phenomenal,” Sacred Heart coach Ayo Hart said. “The intensity was there for the full 32 minutes. We couldn’t have asked for anything more from them in terms of effort. We just got some looks we couldn’t convert, we had some free throws we couldn’t convert.”
A pair of baskets in the low post by Eckerson and a putback from senior forward Claire Liddy gave the Tigers a 6-1 lead 2:32 into the first half. Quickly shaking off a bit of a slow start, St. Luke’s went on an 11-0 run to take a 12-6 edge.
Lau, senior guard Tamia Fulton and Johnson each converted 3-points to ignite the Storm’s spurt. Johnson’s layup off a steal put the home team on top, 15-8, at the 8:56 mark of the opening half, but the Tigers closed to within 17-16 on Atkins’ layup with five minutes remaining.
Consecutive 3-pointers from Lau upped the Storm’s advantage to 29-18 late in the first half.
“As a team we moved the ball and everyone got chances offensively, which was good,” Lau said. “We ran in transition, which helped us get some easy baskets. Defensively, getting steals led to us getting fastbreak layups and that really helped us.”
Sacred Heart, which defeated Greenwich Academy in the semifinals and Hopkins School in the quarterfinals, didn’t let the defending champions pull away though. A layup and a foul shot by Atkins, a putback from eighth-grader Olivia Caponiti and a pair of Eckerson free throws cut the Storm’s lead to 29-25 heading into halftime.
“I think we came out with a lot of intensity,” Atkins said. “We knew how good St. Luke’s how good a shooting team they were. We knew what they were going to do, so it was important that we gave it our all from the start. It takes a lot to defend them, because they have so many great shooters.”
Senior forward Riley Page’s basket off an offensive rebound raised St. Luke’s lead to 41-31 with 9:24 remaining in the second half and the home team maintained their double-digit lead thereafter.
“Once we hit a couple of shots it picked us up defensively and that’s where we won the game, on defense,” said Ward, whose squad rotated between a 2-3 zone and man-to-man defense.
Sacred Heart played man-to-man defense most of the way, with junior forward Morgan Smith guarding Lau the whole game.
“That was a huge adjustment we made,” Hart said. “Morgan is a good defender and I thought she was phenomenal. I couldn’t be happier. Overall, I’m happy with our defensive effort. That’s a team that could easily put up 70 points.”
Senior forward Sydney Cummings contributed six points, while junior guard Sophie Kriftcher had eight points, while swishing two 3-pointers for St. Luke’s. Senior guard Ryan Smith, Morgan Smith and Liddy each had four points for Sacred Heart.
PLAYER OF THE GAME
Johnson’s 3-point shooting enabled St. Luke’s to keep its double-digit advantage in the second half. Every time Sacred Heart threatened to close the gap, she seemed to make a clutch shot.
“We know we are the team to beat and teams are going to bring the pressure on us every time,” Johnson said. “It was a great team effort and we couldn’t have done it without our coaches and fans.”