Allison Hedrick and the rest of Neuqua Valley's core are a year older and wiser.
They understand better when to speed opponents up or slow themselves down.
And the girls know when it's "go time."
Clinging to an 8-point fourth-quarter lead on No. 16 Wheaton North Friday at the York Thanksgiving Tournament, No. 5 Neuqua clamped down defensively for a 56-40 win.
The Wildcats (3-0) held Wheaton North (1-2) scoreless for a six-minute stretch to pull away.
"We buckled down on defense," said Hedrick, Neuqua's lone senior starter, who scored 13 points. "We had to rotate better on defense, which we weren't doing earlier in the game."
Sophomore post Bryce Menendez added 12 points and Nikki Lazar 10 for Neuqua. The Wildcats started 6-0 the last two seasons en route to 20-plus win finishes. With heightened expectations, they're not popping confetti over three November wins.
"We've got some veteran players who have embraced what we've been doing the last few years," Neuqua coach Mike Williams said. "Mediocrity is not where we want to be anymore. We're satisfied that we've made some progress and had some success, but we have bigger goals now."
Mandy Traversa scored 12 points, Chrissy Baird had 7 points and 12 rebounds and Kelly Thornton 6 points for Wheaton North. The Falcons, rattled early by Neuqua's pressure, turned it over their first 5 trips and first 7 of 8. It was 13-2 after Menendez banked in a jumper midway through the first quarter, but Wheaton North settled in.
By halftime the Falcons had sliced the margin to 28-24.
"Once we got over the fear of their trap I thought we hung with them," Wheaton North coach Dave Eaton said, "and got back into the game. For the most part we did a good job of slowing it down and making them work in the halfcourt. Neuqua, they're a darn good team."
Traversa, though, picked up her third foul with seven seconds left in the half, then was whistled for her fourth seconds into the third quarter. She sat for four minutes, but her fourth 3-pointer cut Neuqua's lead to 47-39 with 6:51 left in the game.
Menendez answered with a driving and-one layup, and the next trip down Traversa fouled out, leaving Wheaton North without its biggest offensive threat down the stretch.
Eaton still saw much to grow on.
"Our kids were right there," Eaton said. "To be able to work back showed that we're going to fight and that we can play with teams of that caliber."
Malia Smith's lob to Menendez made it 54-39, and a Menendez free throw pushed the margin to 15. Menendez and Hedrick scored 19 of their 23 points in the second half. Both are athletic posts who pose big mismatch problems.
"Other big girls on other teams can't always stick with us," Hedrick said. "But also the other girls on our team are so athletic, and we know each other so well. Bryce and I have a good connection."
Freshman guard Maya Starks added 7 points and a pair of 3s, and Smith 6 points and 4 rebounds. The Wildcats, who pressured Wheaton North into 33 turnovers, still like to get up and go defensively. But they seem to be taking a more measured approach at the offensive end.
"Offensively, yes," Williams said. "The first couple years with this group we wanted to get to where we were playing full speed the whole way. Now, as we talked about at halftime, we've said let's stay at that speed defensively while offensively let's take what they give us and slow it down. It's a sign of maturity."