DARIEN -- It wasn't easy, but the Darien girls basketball team took care of business and got past visiting Cheshire 56-50 on Tuesday night in the opening round of the Class LL state tournament.
The victory set up a second-round matchup at No. 6 Career Magnet tonight at 7 p.m.
The No. 11-seeded Blue Wave led from coast to coast over No. 22 Cheshire and threatened to break the game open on a few occasions, but the Rams hung around and even closed to within 49-46 late in the fourth quarter.
"It definitely wasn't our best game. We had some time off, and I think that took an impact on us. We started off kind of slow and finished kind of slow, but we're onto the next round," Darien's Kelly Karczewski said. "We came back really rusty, but in the end, we pulled it together more than I thought we would."
The Blue Wave refused to surrender the lead, however, and some clutch free-throw shooting by Meg Marren and Emily Stein down the stretch helped seal the victory.
"We honestly weren't expecting to blow them out; Cheshire's a good team and we knew that they were going to fight to stay in their season," Darien's Ali Aparicio said. "Once we get a few more practices in after coming out of the break, I think that we're definitely going to go far."
Marren's layup with one second remaining in the third quarter allowed Darien to enter the fourth with a 39-29 lead, but Cheshire came storming back. Midway through the fourth, a quick 5-0 Cheshire run, which was highlighted by a 3-pointer from Bry McIntosh, cut Darien's lead to 47-43.
Shooting one-and-one, Kelly Karczewski sank a pair of free throws to stretch her team's lead to 49-43, but Cheshire's Missy Bailey responded by hitting a layup and making the free throw to get to within 49-46. Darien's final seven points all came via the free throw, as Erin Karczewski, Marren and Stein combined to go seven-for-eight to close the game.
"I give Cheshire a lot of credit. Their player Missy Bailey was unbelievable," Darien coach Katie Lauten said. "We have to make sure in the next round that we match that fire. We can't get a lead and then just coast because no team is going to let us do that."
Darien led 11-6 at the end of the first quarter with seven of its points coming from Marren and went on an 11-0 run in the middle of the second to increase its lead from 13-12 to a game-high 24-12 advantage. During the run, Darien got scoring contributions from Kelly Karczewski, Erin Karczewski, Kate Fiore and Marren.
Darien seemed primed to pull away in the third quarter after building its lead to 33-20, but Cheshire again rallied with an 8-0 run.
This was Darien's first live game action since its 50-42 FCIAC quarterfinal loss against Danbury on Feb. 16. The Blue Wave must travel to New Haven to take on Career Magnet, a 70-32 winner over New Milford on Tuesday, but Kelly Karczewski believes her team is up for the challenge after grinding out the win against Cheshire.
"We're expecting Career Magnet, and I think they're going to be pretty good, but we're ready for them," Kelly Karczewski said. "We're ready to take whatever comes at us."
Darien's Kate Bushell was sick and did not play in the tournament opener.
"I knew we might be a little bit rusty," Lauten said. "We have to take the things we may not have been sharp with today and make sure we fix it by Friday."
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Darien 56, Cheshire 50
CHESHIRE 6 11 12 21 -- 50
DARIEN 11 17 11 17 -- 56
CHESHIRE (9-12): Missy Bailey 4 8-11 18; Lauren Como 4 0-0 11; Bry McIntosh 3 0-0 8; Emma Gorham 1 2-5 4; Jill Howard 2 0-0 4; Sara Como 1 0-0 3; Molly Jalbert 1 0-0 2. Totals: 15 10-16 50.
3-pointers: D -- Kelly Karczewski; C -- Bailey 2, McIntosh 2, Sara Como.