Playing its third game in as many nights, fatigue could have easily taken its toll on the Willows Academy girls basketball team Wednesday at Christian Liberty Academy.
But the Eagles, who flew out to a 13-2 lead, were still soaring high at the finish to pull out a nerve-wracking 32-28 decision in Arlington Heights.
The nonconference game between the Class 1A schools went down to the final minutes as a free throw by Willows 5-foot-9 junior forward Bethy Hunt made it 28-28 with 3:57 left.
The score stayed that way until senior guard Keelin McNally drove to the basket for a layup with 17 seconds left.
The Eagles' defense then forced 2 more turnovers, the second resulting in 2 free throw by sophomore Maureen Conroy with 2.5 seconds left to seal the verdict.
The Chargers trailed by as many as 9 points in the second half.
They took the lead at 26-25 on a 3-pointer by sophomore Jess Moriarty with 6:52 left and went ahead 28-25 on a rebound bank shot by junior Shelbi Hernandez.
But Hunt made 1-of-2 free throws three straight times to force the tie at 28 before Willows closed out its win.
"We just needed to relax and keep talking to each other on the floor," said McNally (6 points), an Arlington Heights resident and first-team Independent League all-conference pick as a junior.
McNally is one of two starters back from last year's 23-4 team (school record for wins) which won its first 18 games of the season and a regional crown under fifth-year coach Gerry Kenny.
The other is her junior backcourt partner Brigid Walsh (6 points), a second team all-conference selection also from Arlington Heights.
"We just needed to be strong with the ball," said Walsh, who also had 6 points. "And make good decisions."
The decision gave Willows a 5-2 record while the Chargers lost for the first time in three games.
Unfortunately for CLA, sophomore guard Jess Moriarty (9 points, 8 rebounds) suffered an apparent cramp in her calf and was unable to play the final minutes.
"And she's our best ballhandler, so that gave us a little trouble at the end," said junior guard Megan Sullivan, who scored 6 points with a key 3-pointer in the second quarter. "Their (Willows) trap hurt us. And I think it was a panic thing."
The Chargers showed composure in the first half rallying from the 13-2 deficit. They scored the first 8 points of the second quarter.
A 16-footer and free throw by junior Vivian Barclay (8 rebounds, 2 steals), 3-pointer by Sullivan and rebound bank shot by Shelbi Hernandez cut the deficit to 15-13.
Hernandez finished with a team-high 10 points and 14 rebounds.
"Shelbi is definitely a menace in the middle," said Chargers coach Steve Rowland of his 5-11 junior center from Chicago. "When she is on, she is tough to stop. She is playing real well, and giving us a lot of effort on defense."
Hernandez had a big steal when she went up to block a shot with 28.6 seconds left in the game. Rowland called timeout shortly after, but then the Chargers turned the ball over setting up Conroy's basket which gave Willows the lead for good.
Conroy finished with a game-high 11 points. Hunt pulled down 5 rebounds in the second while senior Megan Brinckerhoff had 2.
"We got a nice jump on them at the start," Kenny said. "But then our tank started to run a little dry. We had a hard game the night before (home loss to Latin). But our girls are very knowledgeable. They are like coaches on the court."
Rowland is always trying to get more players on the court for practices. He has seven players on his roster and is grateful to the boys junior varsity players whenever they can assist.
"That's our biggest challenge," Rowland said. "With only seven players (only senior is Vanessa Alas), we don't have enough to run our offense against a defense.
"I've been trying to recruit some boys to come down and help us out so we can have some live movement in our practices. The JV boys have been nice enough to come down and help us out."
After digging the 13-2 hole, the Chargers outscored their opponent 26-19 the rest of the way.
"Our biggest problem was that we didn't play the first half like we did the second," Rowland said. "And that was the ballgame. We encourage them to get the ball inside to Shelbi, and once we got down, we did that. But they know they gave the game away earlier.
"I think this will be a good reminder that you've got to play like you practice, and we didn't."