Holy Cross girls are back in state semis

After back-to-back second round state tournament exits in 2018 and 2019, the Holy Cross girls basketball team has recently reasserted itself on the big stage.

The Crusaders were semifinalists in Class M in 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancelation of the rest of that postseason. There were no winter state tournaments in 2021. On Tuesday night, top-seeded and undefeated Holy Cross (25-0) reached the semifinal round of Class M for the second straight time with a 62-50 victory over eighth-seeded New Fairfield in a rowdy Tim McDonald Gymnasium.

After first half foul trouble, senior Cayla Howard lit it up in the second half with 19 points to finish with a game-high in that category. She was joined in double figures by her freshman sister Shania Howard, who tallied 10 points. Junior standout Mya Zaccagnini scored 11 points, but the contributions of senior Nyasia Smith (9 points) and sophomore Rachel Healey (8 points) can’t be overlooked.

Holy Cross trailed, 29-26, with 5:25 left in the third quarter. Cayla Howard scored seven straight points around a basket by New Fairfield’s Caitlyn Rea to put the Crusaders back in front. The last three of Howard’s points came on a 3-pointer that gave her team the lead, 33-31, and forced a Rebel timeout at the 2:35 mark. Zaccagnini followed with a deep 3-pointer from the left wing for a 36-31 advantage. New Fairfield got back to 37-34, but Howard was overplayed to her right, went to her strong left hand and scored on a drive for a 39-34 Holy Cross lead after three quarters.

The Crusaders led by eight twice in the fourth quarter only to see the tough Rebel contingent battle back to within three after the second eight-point deficit, 45-42. Who did Holy Cross go back to? Cayla Howard, of course. Howard scored the next four points for a 49-42 lead. A 3-pointer from New Fairfield’s Gabbi Arterberry closed the deficit to 49-45 with just over four minutes left. This time, Smith halted the Rebel charge with three points on a free throw and huge layup off an offensive rebound for a 52-45 Crusader advantage. New Fairfield got to within six again, 54-48, with 1:47 to go, but Holy Cross sank eight of nine attempts at the foul line to seal the victory.

The next challenge for the Crusaders is fifth-seeded Valley Regional next Monday at a site and time to be determined. A win puts Holy Cross back in the state final for the first time since 2017.

GALLERY: Here are my photos from Tuesday’s game.

Photo caption: Senior Nyasia Smith and the Holy Cross girls basketball team got plenty of support from the Crusader Crew student section during Tuesday’s state quarterfinal win over New Fairfield. (Copyright, Sports on CT-69)