The 2023 NEPSAC Class B Girls Basketball Tournament final featured the same two teams from the previous seasons – St. Luke’s School and Brooks School – yet, much to the delight of the Storm it had a different outcome than the past two years.
Last season’s championship matchup saw the Storm come oh, so close, to winning, as they were edged by one point, but yesterday, they avenged their past losses to Brooks in emphatic fashion.
The third time was indeed, the charm, for top-seeded St. Luke’s, which produced its program’s most significant victory, defeating seventh-seeded Brooks School, 61-52, in the title game of the NEPSAC Class B Tournament before a big crowd at Loomis Chaffee School in Windsor.
Senior guard Mackenzie Nelson, a Greenwich resident, scored 14 of her 16 points during the second half for the Storm (26-2), while senior guard Ava Sollenne, also a Greenwich resident, poured in 16 points, while converting five 3-pointers to power St. Luke’s. Senior forward/center Brielle Renwick turned in a sensational game, scoring a game-high 17 points for the Storm, who built a double-digit lead in the second half, after entering halftime with a slim, 23-31 advantage.
Nelson, who will play basketball in the ACC with Virginia Tech next season, received the NEPSAC Class B Most Valuable Player award for the 2023-2023 season, following the victory.
“It’s well-deserved win for our team,” Nelson said. “We worked hard for it all season long and since a year ago, we had this feeling of almost winning and then not winning.”
In the 2022 NEPSAC Class B final last winter, Brooks, from North Andover, Massachusetts, pulled out a 76-75 win over St. Luke’s in overtime.
“That kind of drove us from the preseason, to the beginning, to the middle of the season,” Nelson said, referring to the team’s title game loss a season ago. “When we were down, it gave us a reason to fight back and that’s what we were doing today.”
While Nelson did a lot of her damage in the second half, Sollenne and Renwick also scored clutch points after halftime. Sollenne, who like Nelson, spent three successful seasons at St. Luke’s, after playing at Greenwich High School her freshman year, swished three 3-pointers in the second half. Renwick was key in the low post for the Storm, totaling 10 second-half points.
“It feels amazing, this has been our goal the entire season, honestly since sophomore year,” said Sollenne, who played on the team with her sister Emma, a sophomore, for two seasons. “All of us our proud of ourselves. Our effort throughout the entire season went toward getting to this point and taking home the win.”
St. Luke’s captured the win that narrowly eluded it last year by playing exceptional man-to-man defense throughout. Coach by Matthew Ward, the Storm locked in defensively, making Brooks work hard for their shots each quarter.
“Defense is our calling card,” Ward said. “I told them if they don’t score, we can’t lose. Whatever we did on offense was a bonus. Our mentality was strictly defense and getting stops. Our fourth quarter was our best defensive quarter in this game. Our third quarter was great, but the fourth was better.”
The opening quarter ended with the Storm holding a 9-8 edge on Brooks. Halftime concluded with St. Luke’s ahead, 23-21. In the second half the Storm separated, outscoring Brooks School, 21-11, during the third quarter to open 44-32 advantage.
“In the second half, we played our St. Luke’s basketball and we played our St. Luke’s defense and that’s what made us get that lead,” Mackenzie Nelson said.
Senior guard Kendall Eddy scored 12 points, including two 3-pointers, while junior Jessica Maina added 10 points, also hitting a pair of shots from beyond the arc for Brooks, which advanced to the NEPSAC Class B final by earning a 59-56 triumph against third-seeded Beaver Country Day School in Saturday’s semifinals.
Sophomore guard Camdyn Nelson and junior forward Kayla Weiskopf had five points apiece, while senior guard Aidan Panian scored two points in the winning effort.
“I’m excited, we lost to them last year, so we definitely wanted to come back this season and beat them,” said Camdyn Nelson, joined the varsity team last season as a freshman. “It’s a good experience and exciting for our seniors.”
A basket by Eddy gave Brooks a 10-9 lead early in the second quarter. Camdyn Nelson grabbed an offensive rebound and scored, putting the Storm on top, 11-10, Renwick scored off an impressive move in the low post, making it 13-10. Eddy and sophomore guard Lydia Tangney (seven points) each made shots, giving Brooks a 14-13 edge, but that proved to be its final lead of the title game.
A foul shot by Camdyn Nelson, followed by a layup by Panian off a pass from Camdyn Nelson, put the Storm on top, 16-14 with four minutes remaining in the second quarter. Weiskopf made a pair of free throws, extending the Storm’s lead to 18-14, but Brooks evened the score at 21-21 late in the second quarter, as freshman Jules Giordano’s 3-pointer fueled a quick burst.
Renwick scored off a nice spin move in the paint in the final minute of the second quarter, giving St. Luke’s a 23-21 lead heading into halftime.
“We were a little nervous, but we knew the team that we are and we knew were going to pull it out at the end,” Sollenne said of the squad’s mindset going into the second half. “We knew what we had to do.”
Mackenzie Nelson immediately made her presence felt offensively in the third quarter. She made three foul shots, then drove hard to her right for a layup, putting the Storm ahead, 28-23, and inducing Brooks to call a timeout with 6:22 left in the third quarter. Renwick’s basket off a pass from Mackenzie Nelson and Nelson’s layup around traffic made it 35-27 in favor of St. Luke’s at the 4:08 mark of the third quarter, forcing Brooks to take another timeout.
“I didn’t play too well in the first half, but in the second half I picked it up,” Mackenzie Nelson noted. “My teammates had my back and that’s what allowed me to do it.”
Ward wasn’t surprised to see Mackenzie Nelson, the team’s leading scorer, convert shots during the second half.
“They did a good job of swarming her, making her kick it out and do some different things,” Ward said. “But she (Nelson) is so difficult to guard for 32 minutes and in the second half, she found some space and was able to see the ball go through. Once the ball goes through once, it’s going to start going through continuously. She’s another one who brings it on both ends of the floor.”
Sollenne swished a 3-pointer from the left side after catching a pass from Mackenzie Nelson, Camdyn Nelson scored on a putback and Mackenzie Nelson made another basket, increasing St. Luke’s advantage to 44-32 going into the fourth quarter.
“At halftime, we talked about playing as a team,” Camdyn Nelson said. “We’ve been here before and we knew we had to keep going and trust our defense and know that defense will turn into offense.”
Ava Sollenne nailed three shots from beyond the 3-point arc during the second half.
“That’s what makes us so hard to guard, because if you take away the drive, someone is open and it’s usually Ava or Kayla,” Ward noted. “Ava had her best shooting year this year, she was over 40 percent from 3. Every time she shoots it, I think it’s going in.”
“I knew that I had to get open and hit those shots,” Ava Sollenne said. “I did what I had to do to help the team get a win and did what I was supposed to do.”
A 3-pointer from the right corner by Weiskopf against Brooks’ man-to-man defense stretched the Storm’s lead to 47-32 in fourth quarter. Ava Sollenne then buried another 3-pointer from the left corner, making it 53-38 and putting St. Luke’s on the brink of claiming the title.
“It’s my first year here, so it’s pretty cool to come in and win it,” Weiskopf said. “I did know some of the girls pretty well before I got here, I played with a couple of them for a few years. I am happier for them that they got to win it, because I know that they have been here three years in a row, so I’m happy that they got to win it their senior year.”
“Our coaching staff does a really good job of adjusting to the other team’s defense,” Weiskopf continued. “At halftime, they were just reminding us to stick to what we know.”
St. Luke’s also flourished at getting points in the paint in the second half, courtesy of Renwick.
“She (Renwick) has grown so much in terms of confidence and maturity and understanding her role,” Ward said. “Yesterday (Saturday against Greens Farms Academy) she had a great game too. We needed her to be great today, because they didn’t have a lot of size inside and she came up big in two or three spots, where she made some big shots.”
A 63-50 win against FAA rival Greens Farms Academy in Saturday’s semifinals propelled St. Luke’s into the tournament’s final.
As soon as the buzzer sounded, ending yesterday’s title game, the Storm stormed the court in celebration. Shortly after the game, Mackenzie Nelson was presented with the NEPSAC Class B 2022-2023 Most Valuable Player Award. Sacred Heart Greenwich coach Ayo Hart, who was on the tournament’s Coaches Committee, presented Nelson with the award.
Mackenzie Nelson, Ava Sollenne, Renwick and Panian are the Storm’s seniors.
“I love playing for this team,” Ava Sollenne said. “It’s such a special group. We’re such a family. We were talking about it in the locker room. We love each other so much and I’m so happy I get to win with this group.”
Mackenzie Nelson reflected on the impact the coaching staff had on the championship team.
“They are what allowed us to be so successful this year,” Nelson said. “We couldn’t have done it without them, they push us in practice. They make us better, they are the glue to the team. As much as we’re the ones on the court. They’re the ones who put us all together, call the right plays, call the right defenses and call the right time outs. “They’re the ones fueling us and allowing us to be successful on the court.”
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