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It's an old cliché but Crystal Lake South girls basketball coach Kyle McCaughn knew it was poignant, especially as his team prepared to play McHenry Wednesday night.
"We know that the next game is the most important game," McCaughn said. "Friday wouldn't matter if we don't come out tonight and play like we can."
Now Friday becomes a little more than important. The Gators took care of business Wednesday, beating McHenry 45-24, to set up a first-place showdown at Cary-Grove on Friday, with Huntley coming to Gator Alley next week. CLS, Cary-Grove and Huntley are all currently tied for first place in the Valley with 1 league loss each. CL South beat Cary-Grove 45-43 on Dec. 7.
"I was leery coming in tonight," said McCaughn. "(McHenry) is a team that's played very well at times and they caused us some fits in the first half. Fortunately we were able to get some easy baskets in transition."
McHenry's defense did stifle the Gators (17-4, 5-1) early as 6-foot-1 senior Brittany Avonts blocked 4 shots in the first quarter and forced South outside. But for all the good the Warriors (10-13, 2-5) were doing on defense, they couldn't muster anything offensively, shooting just 3-for-15 in the first half while committing 19 turnovers as the Gators led 19-7 at the break after senior Stephanie Oros (7 points) buried a 3-pointer with 57 seconds left in the second quarter.
"We wanted to come out strong because we knew the Cary-Grove coaches were here watching," said South sophomore Carly Nolan, who had 12 points, 3 blocked shots and 3 steals. "We're improving. Instead of rushing our passes we're taking our time and finding the open person."
After shooting just 4 of 18 in the first quarter, the Gators showed more offensive patience the rest of the night and were 17-for-34 in the final three quarters. Their defense also caused McHenry 17 more turnovers and held the Warriors to a 10 of 37 shooting night. Nolan's interior defense was key to keeping Avonts and the Warriors from owning the paint.
"I've been working on my defense," Nolan said. "Usually I get in trouble going side-to-side and moving my feet but coach McCaughn has been working with me on that and it's improving."
South was able to put the game away for good by dominating the third quarter. After Avants scored to make it 19-9 early in the third quarter, junior Sara Mickow (6 points), junior Rachel Rasmussen (8 points) and Nolan each scored to make it a 25-9 Gator lead. By the end of the third South had a 37-18 advantage, with Nolan scoring 8 of her points in the period. The big lead allowed McCaughn to get his bench significant playing time in the fourth quarter.
"We're learning our offense better," said McCaughn. "The timing is still off at times but we're finding it. I give the kids a lot of credit for trusting in what we're doing."
Avonts led McHenry with 8 points and 7 rebounds.