Myia Starks may just be a freshman, but don't tell Niki Lazar she plays like one.
"She's not afraid," the Neuqua Valley junior said. "She keeps surprising me every game. It blows my mind."
Starks scored 9 of her 14 points in the fourth quarter, Lazar herself hit two huge 3-pointers, and No. 3 Neuqua Valley stormed back from 9 down in the last eight minutes to beat No. 13 Metea Valley 60-53 on Friday in Naperville.
Wide-eyed, barely standing 5-foot-6, Starks nonetheless stuck a clutch jumper to pull the Wildcats (8-0, 2-0 Upstate Eight Valley) within 2, then sank 4 big three throws late to preserve the lead.
"I just really needed to play hard," Starks said, "because I wanted my team to win."
Metea (4-3, 0-1) led all the way into the final minutes of the fourth quarter despite 35 turnovers, but eventually the lead caved under Neuqua's constant pressure. The Mustangs were up by 12 at one point in the first half and 40-30 with 1:26 left in the third quarter after a Lori Obendorf basket.
Neuqua kept coming, taking its first lead at 51-49 with 2:16 left on a Bryce Menendez steal and breakaway layup. Two more steals led to Lazar and Starks free throws and a 6-point cushion.
"We finally broke through," Neuqua coach Mike Williams said. "Our pressure defense, it seems to wear people out."
Starks' quick hands and aggressiveness were a big part of that.
"I think our pressure intimidates the person with the ball," Starks said.
Lazar, who missed the last two games with an ankle injury, made her presence felt late. Seemingly dared to shoot, Lazar hit a corner 3 to tie it 46, then another wide-open 3 to knot it 49-49 with 2:33 left.
"My coach just yelled at me and told me to shoot it," Lazar said. "I'm not the most confident shooter, but I thought what do I have to lose. I took the big shots and they went in."
Metea's loss was its third straight and seemed to follow a familiar script. Just like last Saturday's loss to Naperville Central, the Mustangs got out to a nice early lead but broke down in the second half. The Mustangs have given up 60-plus points in losses to Benet, Naperville Central and Neuqua.
"Our two biggest issues are composure and selfishness," Metea coach Kris Kalivas said. "Until we fix those two we're not going to beat good teams. We hang our heads when we get down and we gotta start playing defense."
Obendorf scored 20 points with 11 rebounds, and fellow 6-2 post Anna Petersen had 8 points and 17 rebounds. When those two touched the ball, they seemed to score at will. Obendorf's three-point play with 2:46 left gave her team its last lead.
"They played well, and they have all year," Kalivas said. "Unfortunately our guards struggled to see that we have a height advantage every time we step on the floor. Until we start sharing the ball more we're going to continue to have games like this."
Najee Smith scored 11 points, Menendez 10, Allison Hedrick 10 and Lazar 8 for Neuqua. Hedrick, switched onto Metea's Bria Walker in the fourth, held Metea's 3-point ace scoreless after she had scored 10 up to that point.
On its heels early, Neuqua was clearly the aggressor at the end.
"Allison's bigger, and she's as quick as Bria," Williams said. "The hype of the game, it's always a tough game. We knew their size inside would be a problem. Good teams find a way to pull it out. It seems like when we play them it's always like this."