The freshman and sophomore group of girls playing on Burlington Central's varsity team this season have, and rightfully so, been given about as much recognition as any of their age in recent memory.
But when the game was on the line at Streamwood Wednesday night it was a savvy senior who had ice in her veins.
Camille Delacruz, an unsung hero for the Rockets all season, calmly stepped to the free throw line with six seconds to play and swished two shots that iced the Rockets' 40-37 come-from-behind nonconference win in a battle between a conference champion and a conference contender that will ultimately serve both well as the postseason approaches.
"The player of the game was Camille Delacruz," said BC coach Mark Smith, who went from being the unhappiest guy in the gym to the happiest in a matter of about 40 minutes. "She was all over the place with her steals and I really like the way she ran the show in the second half. Then she makes the two big free throws. She's so valuable for us and I don't know where we'd be without her."
The free throws came after Streamwood had missed a shot attempt to take the lead and Delacruz was fouled when she came up with the rebound in a scrum. Her game-sealing shots came after Streamwood coach George Rosner iced her with a time out.
"Right place at the right time," said Delacruz of grabbing the loose rebound. "I just tried to relax. I was pretty nervous."
The Big Northern East champion Rockets (21-4), who won their sixth straight, never led in the game until freshman Sam Pryor broke free for a layup with 1:08 to play that put BC ahead 38-37. Streamwood (17-6) was the aggressor early on, rolling out to a 22-11 halftime lead, holding BC to 5 of 24 shooting and helping create 15 Rocket turnovers.
"The fact we didn't open up that first half to 15-18 points led to what happened in the second half," said Rosner.
What happened in the second half, according to Smith, was that the Rockets settled into their game.
"I thought we played a little intimidated and a little scared in the first half," he said. "There was not a lot of yelling or anything at halftime. We just laid it on the line to them as to how they had to play and I was much happier with the second half."
It took the Rockets most of the third quarter to get back in the game. Trailing 26-15 after Streamwood's Brittany Delao scored with 5:57 left in the third, Central went on a 10-0 run to draw within 1 at 26-25 on a left-handed hook by Pryor (7 points) with 1:41 left. Included in the run were all three of Delacruz's baskets in the game, two of them layups after spinning away from her defender and the other off a steal.
"The second half we talked to each other and played as a team," said Delacruz, who finished with 8 points, 4 steals and 3 assists. "In the first half we played to their tempo and not our tempo. I'm not going to lie, we were a little intimidated but once we got over that we meshed."
Streamwood maintained its lead for most of the fourth quarter but the Sabres, who had 24 turnovers, didn't score in the final 4:01 of the game. After Delacruz's free throws, the Sabres turned the ball over instead of getting a final shot to tie.
"That was our worst second half of the season, offensively and defensively," said Rosner, whose team needs to beat Larkin tonight and Batavia Saturday to secure at least a share of the Upstate Eight River title, which would be the program's first conference championship since 1987-88. "But I give (the Rockets) a ton of credit. They're young and they easily could have gotten blown out.
"We can't play like this. There aren't a lot of teams we're going to beat if we play like this. Poor decisions by people who shouldn't be making poor decisions. We knew this would be a tough game and I wanted a good tough game and we got more than we were prepared for. But I really like (the Rockets) and Mark did a great job of keeping them focused."
Senior Jessica Cerda led the Sabres with 11 points, while junior Hannah McGlone had 9 points, 5 steals and 5 blocks. Freshman Becca Gerke had a strong game for the Rockets with 10 points. Freshman Shelby Holt added 8 points, including two key 3-pointers in the fourth quarter, and sophomore Allison Colby returned from a concussion to score 6 points and grab 7 rebounds. BC outrebounded the Sabres 33-19.
"Becca just has to remain confident," said Smith of Gerke. "She started the comeback and her ability to get around McGlone was huge."