Holy Cross girls finish what they started, claim state championship

The Holy Cross girls basketball team was on the doorstep of the Mohegan Sun Arena in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic stopped everything.

The third-seeded Crusaders made it to the Class M state semifinals with a 64-54 win over No. 22 Stonington in the friendly confines of the Tim McDonald Gymnasium. That game was on March 9, and the other semifinalist was to be determined in a quarterfinal matchup between No. 2 Canton and No. 10 Coginchaug Regional-Durham on March 10. That date, March 10, is one that has been seared into memory, because that’s when the rest of the winter sports tournaments were canceled by the CIAC.

The 2021 edition of Holy Cross girls basketball didn’t lose a game (11-0), but there was no state tournament to journey through because there were still concerns about COVID. Heck, the NVL championship game wasn’t even played because Seymour, Holy Cross’ opponent, had a positive case in its program.

It wasn’t hard to see where the motivation came from for the top-seeded and undefeated Crusaders this past Sunday in their Class M state championship game against second-seeded Bacon Academy-Colchester. Holy Cross put together a 61-38 win over Bacon Academy, finished the season 27-0, and captured the program’s second state title. The first one was won in 2007, and that team also went undefeated.

“They really wanted to make it here, and then we were saying it’s not good enough to (just) make it,” Crusader coach Frank Lombardo said. “We’ve accomplished so much over the last two years. We’re going to go and try to win the game.”

That’s exactly what Holy Cross did behind 20 points from Mya Zaccagnini, 16 points from Cayla Howard and 14 points from Nyasia Smith. The Crusaders also played their usual strong defense, which forced the Bobcats into 26 turnovers and 23% shooting.

“It felt so good,” Smith, a senior, said about winning the state title. “I’ve never experienced this, I’ve never been to Mohegan. It was a very eye-opening experience.”

“It feels amazing. We worked hard all season long,” said Zaccagnini, a junior. “It’s what we were dreaming of doing and we accomplished it, so it’s the best feeling ever.”

Zaccagnini had the added joy of scoring her 1,000th career point on her final shot of the game. Holy Cross has now won 44 straight games. Before the final against Bacon Academy, Lombardo gave some advice to his team.

“Be yourselves, don’t do too much. Emphasize your strengths, understand the roles of your teammates on the court, and let’s be Holy Cross,” Lombardo said.

Lombardo ended with this: “OK, are we ready?”

The Crusaders excitedly answered yeah in unison. Senior Loren Tuck imparted some wisdom from Hall of Famer Michael Jordan: “There are plenty of teams in every sport that have great players and never win titles. If you think and achieve as a team, the individual accolades will take care of themselves. Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships.”

Holy Cross began the final with an 8-0 burst, and Bacon didn’t score until there was 5:38 left in the opening eight minutes. Howard got the scoring going with a 3-pointer, then Zaccagnini poured in five straight points on fast break buckets.

“We played great defense. We held them to zero points for the first half of the first quarter and we kept going and it just carried us,” Zaccagnini said.

Holy Cross made Bacon pay for its mistakes by scoring 21 points off the 26 turnovers. Nineteen of those 26 turnovers were because of steals by the Crusaders. Zaccagnini had six steals, senior Kristina Perry added five steals and freshman Shania Howard recorded four steals. Cayla Howard had two steals while senior Ella Atkins added two steals, along with her tremendous individual defense. Atkins was the spearhead behind a rough morning for Bacon senior Valerie Luizzi, who scored five points on just 1 of 12 shooting to go along with six turnovers. Atkins didn’t score in the game, but she didn’t have to in order to have a major impact on the result.

Zaccagnini, Cayla Howard and Smith all filled the stat sheet. Zaccagnini had seven rebounds and three assists; Howard tallied eight rebounds; and Smith snagged a game-high 12 rebounds. All three of those players were key cogs on the 2019-2020 and 2021 Holy Cross teams, and all got a state championship. Senior Maeve Perrone was also a key cog in 2019-2020, and the Crusaders played for her on Sunday because she couldn’t due to injury.

Holy Cross led by 11 points after one quarter (19-8) and increased the lead to 15 by halftime (32-17). That advantage never went below 14 points in the third quarter and wasn’t lower than 16 over the final eight minutes.

Photo caption: Holy Cross point guard Mya Zaccagnini brings the ball up the floor during the Class M state championship game against Bacon Academy at Mohegan Sun Arena this past Sunday. At Zaccagnini’s left is Ella Atkins. Behind them is Kristina Perry.

GALLERY: Here are my photos from Holy Cross’ state championship win.