Despite the Kennedy High girls basketball team’s best efforts to disrupt her game, Ansonia High senior Melissa Tirella managed to come within one point of her season high in leading the fourth-seeded Chargers to a 43-34 victory over fifth-seeded Kennedy in a Naugatuck Valley League tournament quarterfinal game at Holy Cross High School of Waterbury on Monday afternoon.
The Chargers face top-seeded and once-beaten Watertown High in a semifinal match-up at Kennedy High School in Waterbury at 7 p.m.
Watertown (20-1) defeated Ansonia (15-6) twice during the regular season and enters the game on a 10-game winning streak.
In a game that often resembled bumper cars as much as it did a high school basketball game due to its physicality, Tirella was a port in the storm with a game-high 26 points on 9-of-22 shooting from the floor and 7-of-12 from the free throw line.
“That’s how they play,” said Ansonia coach Patrick Lynch of Kennedy. “They play a very physical, up-in-your-face type of game.”
The constant bumping didn’t seem to phase Tirella, who opened the game with a free throw and a runner in the lane to stake the Chargers to a quick lead. She later added a 3-pointer, a driving layup and a coast-to coast layup to give Ansonia a 12-9 lead after one quarter.
Defense took an even more prominent role in a second quarter that saw the two teams combine to make just 3-of-31 shots.
But, a Tirella free throw and driving layup, and a Grace Keener putback at the buzzer were enough to help the Chargers extend their halftime advantage to 17-11.
The Eagles (13-8) got their offense going in the first half of the third quarter. An 8-3 Kennedy run, capped by a Shontia Punter steal and layup, cut the Ansonia lead to just one point, 20-19, with 4:26 left in the third quarter.
Kennedy’s run seemed to wake up Ansonia, which responded with a 15-1 run.
Tierney Lawlor got it started with a pull-up jumper in the lane, and Tirella added a conventional three-point play to extend the Ansonia lead back to six points.
By the time Morgan Westine made a 12-footer in the lane one minute into the fourth quarter, the Chargers were up 35-20.
Tirella led the run with nine points.
“She’s been our scorer not just this year, but the last three years,” said Lynch of Tirella, who came within one point of her season-high 27 points scored against Oxford back in December.
Kennedy, which never led, managed to get back within seven points with 2:12 left in the game before the Chargers made 7-of-10 free throws down the stretch to seal the victory.
“Now we have to clear our heads and think about [today],” said Lynch, whose team will be trying to both make it to Thursday’s championship game as well as surpass last season’s win total of 15 games.
Lawler finished with 10 points for Ansonia, which has won five games in a row. Westine added four points.
Keener and Quanisha Finney did yeoman’s work on the boards, grabbing 15 apiece.
“They set screens and rebound,” said Lynch of Finney and Keener. “Without people like that, you don’t have a winning record.”
Ansonia stormed to a 24-9 halftime lead and defeated Woodland Regional, 48-29, on the road on Saturday.
Tirella scored 18 points to go with four steals and three assists for the Chargers, who finished the regular season with a 14-6 record.
Lawlor scored 15 points and had nine rebounds, as the Hawks fell to 10-10.
Finney had nine rebounds and five points. Westine scored eight points.