Finally, Tom Dineen let out a deep sigh.
It was difficult to tell whether Stevenson's girls basketball coach was more relieved that his team had survived a scare against host Libertyville, winning the North Suburban Lake Division thriller 31-27 Friday night after nearly squandering a 12-point cushion, or that the Patriots, at last, had gotten the best of their nemesis.
It was Dineen's first win over Libertyville in his four seasons at Stevenson. Likewise, four-year varsity players Kari Moffat and Alex Elzinga had never been on the winning side in a game against the Wildcats.
Libertyville had swept the home-and-home series with Stevenson each of the last three seasons.
"Going into this game, Alex and I were both aware of where we stood with Libertyville," said Moffat, whose lone basket of the night, a breakaway layup late in the game, was a crusher for the hosts. "We came out ready to play."
When Stevenson (4-4, 1-1) went up 19-7 on Paige Freudenberg's free throw with 1:53 left in the second quarter, the game started to resemble last season's Saturday matinee, when the Patriots built a 14-point lead.
As the game wore on, it looked more and more like Libertyville might duplicate last season's result, when it outlasted visiting Stevenson in overtime en route to securing a berth in the NSC title game.
"We wanted it so bad, " Wildcats senior guard Olivia Mayer said. "It was a tough loss. We really wanted to repeat (last year's result)."
It was Mayer who sparked Friday night's comeback. Libertyville (2-7, 1-2) was stuck on 7 points until its lone returning starter took a pass from Dana Kym (4 points, 11 rebounds) and hit a bailout 3-pointer from the wing to beat the halftime buzzer and get the Wildcats within 19-10.
"That was a big momentum changer," Mayer said. "It was a great pass, right in my shooting spot, and I just knocked it down. We were really fired up going into the locker room. We were being really loud."
Stevenson was being very quiet.
Well, maybe not its coach.
"I thought we played an outstanding defensive first half, except for their last possession, and that was created by our lack of basketball IQ," Dineen said. "We should have just run out the half.
"But all in all, I thought our defense the whole game was very, very good with an exception here and there."
Stevenson led 20-10 early in the third quarter when Mayer's second 3 started a 7-0 run, which Elzinga (10 points, 5 blocks) ended with a putback.
Libertyville continued to chip away at its deficit, getting within one twice in the fourth quarter. Sophomore Mary Wilterdink had one foot on the 3-point arc when she scored to pull the Wildcats within 28-27 with 1:20 left. Wilterdink also had hit a clutch shot early in the quarter.
"We had an excellent effort in making the comeback," Libertyville coach Greg Pedersen said. "We'd like to start stronger than what we did. But the girls have a lot of heart and a lot of gusto, and they really gave it their all to get that comeback going."
Libertyville had the ball with a chance to go ahead late, but the Wildcats got a bad break when Wilterdink slipped while dribbling between the circles. Moffat scooped up the ball and dribbled the other way for an uncontested layup with 31 seconds left, hiking Stevenson's lead to 30-27.
Mayer played man-to-man defense on Moffat all night and limited the two-time all-conference playmaker to 2 shots before Moffat's late steal and layup.
"She played very well," Moffat said of Mayer. "She really makes their team go. Her defense and offense are both aggressive, and she plays smart."
The 5-foot-5 Mayer scored a game-high 12 points, despite being hounded by Stevenson sophomore Sophia Way (10 points, 7 rebounds), who is 3 inches taller than Mayer.
"I thought Sophia did a very good job of containing No. 22 (Mayer)," Dineen said after his Patriots won their fourth in a row. "She makes them go."
Stevenson sophomore Taylor Buford added 8 points, including a pair of field goals in the fourth quarter.
Libertyville got baskets from Wilterdink (2), Mayer, Haley Hoeksel and Jessica Van Roeyen in the fourth, but through three quarters, Mayer had 10 of her team's 17 points.
"We lack experience," Pedersen said. "Once we make a comeback, we need to find people who are going to step up and then push us over the top. That person will develop. We'll figure out who that is."