Najee Smith can't quite put a finger on Neuqua Valley's so-so starts.
With the Wildcats it always seems like only a matter of time before the next run.
That was the case Friday, as No. 5 Neuqua outscored No. 12 Metea Valley 24-8 in the third quarter to erase a 2-point halftime deficit and ran away with a 60-43 win in Aurora.
"It's an understatement to say that we came out flat," said Neuqua junior Smith, who scored 14 points with a steal and score to start the second-half surge. "We came into the locker room and said, 'We're not going to get to where we want to go the way we're playing.' We turned it on and picked up our intensity."
Neuqua (18-1, 7-0 Upstate Eight Valley), which put itself two games clear of Metea in the Valley race with the win, also trailed at half against Metea in the teams' first meeting and was down 2 at half Tuesday against Wheaton Warrenville South. The Wildcats also started slowly against Naperville Central.
Neither team led by more than 2 in the second quarter, but Neuqua quickly gained separation out of the break.
The Wildcats took the lead for good at 27-25 on Allison Hedrick's score off a Bryce Menendez lob, and Malia Smith followed with a steal and breakaway layup. The margin got to double figures at 37-27 on a Najee Smith basket off another Menendez high-low feed and eventually ballooned to 22 in the fourth quarter.
Neuqua coach Mike Williams was a bit worried about an emotional letdown after Tuesday's big win over WW South. He never, though, need be too concerned with this group.
"This was a little bit of a trap game," Williams said. "You can tell them whatever you want about conference, about how Metea needed this one to stay alive, but no matter what you say, kids are kids, and it's Friday night. That's what I love about these kids. You don't have to say anything to get them to play. They know."
Metea (15-4, 5-2) had won 11 straight since a loss to Neuqua Nov. 30. Despite losing Anna Petersen to an ACL tear two weeks ago, the Mustangs were coming off arguably their best win, on Tuesday at Wheaton North.
But old, bad habits hurt them against Neuqua.
More than the foul problems of leading scorer Lori Obendorf, more than the 11-of-27 free-throw shooting, Metea lost its composure in the third quarter. The Mustangs turned the basketball over 13 times, matching their first-half total. Neuqua's constant pressure defense feeds off those mistakes, and Metea knows it.
That said, a 1-point Neuqua advantage grew to 10 with Obendorf sitting with three fouls.
"We just didn't adjust to the game," said Obendorf, who finished with 14 points and 12 rebounds. "We knew it was coming, we knew it was going to swarm us, and we just didn't adjust to it. We have to make better decisions. We let their pressure get to us, let it get into our heads."
Hedrick had 13 points, Menendez 9 points, 9 rebounds and 3 blocks in the third quarter and Myia Starks 7 points. Neuqua's bench, way deeper than Metea, outscored the Mustangs' 14-2 and kept the pressure coming.
"We are definitely lucky to have a deep bench," Najee Smith said. "We just try to keep running teams."
Jenny Voytell had 9 points and 10 rebounds and Bria Walker 9 points for Metea, Walker scoring her 1,000th varsity point. The loss followed an all-too familiar storyline to Metea coach Kris Kalivas against Neuqua.
"We beat ourselves," Kalivas said. "As good as we were Tuesday, was as bad as we were tonight. I'm at a loss."
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