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Cary-Grove needed a quick pick-me-up since it was down 9 points to visiting Huntley and only 5:36 remained in regulation of Saturday afternoon's Fox Valley Conference Valley Division girls basketball title showdown at Elroy Fitzgerald Gymnasium.
Cary-Grove coach Rod Saffert used a timeout to get his players, who were trying to claim a fourth straight conference championship, to visualize the positive potential of a situation which could have easily fostered overwhelming negativity.
"The most important thing was staying positive and not getting down about them scoring and being down nine," said Trojans' senior Joslyn Nicholson. "Coach told us to imagine how cool it was going to be after we pull this one out in five minutes."
OK, so Saffert was quite on the mark in terms of time. But the Trojans (19-6, 10-1) managed to force overtime and went on to clinch at least a share of their 12th conference crown with a 50-44 victory over the Red Raiders (21-5, 10-2).
"Five minutes plus four minutes — awesome," Nicholson said after scoring 8 of her 15 points in the final 6:32 and putting the Trojans ahead to stay at 38-37 with a free throw 54 seconds into overtime.
"This is exactly what we wanted, a close game like this and a big game in the conference like this," said Cary-Grove senior Olivia Jakubicek, who scored 21 points to move into second place on the Trojans girls' career scoring list behind her sister Claire. "We knew we could do it and pull it out no matter how far down we were."
Sophomore Katie Barker sparked the comeback with two of her three 3-pointers and Sarah Kendeigh hit a big 3 in overtime as the Trojans beat Huntley for the second time in their 10-game winning streak. They can wrap up their third straight outright title with a win in the FVC Valley finale over visiting Dundee-Crown at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
That scenario didn't look too likely even after the Red Raiders were unable to add to a 35-26 lead with a missed 1-and-1 free throw. Sam and Ali Andrews had combined for 26 of their 28 points and deviating from their traditional man-to-man defense for a 2-3 zone was causing problems for the Trojans.
"I think we just got to the mentality that this is our home court and they can't come in here and just take it from us," Nicholson said after ending Huntley's seven-game winning streak.
After Barker's 3s, Bethany Zornow hit 2 free throws for a 37-32 lead with 3:10 left and Huntley got the ball back. But three successive steals led to layups for Nicholson and Jakubicek and Nicholson's tying free throw at 1:36.
"If you play defense you're never out of the game," said Saffert, who deflected much of the credit for that side of the ball to assistant coach Andy Donaldson.
"I thought both teams poured their hearts out and our team played exceptionally well for 29 minutes," said Huntley coach Steve Raethz, whose team shot just 3-for-16 from the field after halftime to finish at 33 percent (12-for-36), "but in the last three minutes we didn't do a good job of handling their pressure. It came down to toughness with the basketball.
"It was a great game and the kids played extremely well with the exception of handling their pressure down the stretch. That's a credit to Cary-Grove because they really applied the pressure."
Jakubicek drew a charging foul at 1:12 and the Trojans held for the last shot. Kendeigh's left-corner 3 went in and out, but the junior banked in her next attempt from behind the arc with 2:35 to play for a 41-37 lead.
Huntley got within 2 points twice — the last at 43-41 on Amanda Kaniewski's layup off Zornow's feed with 59 seconds left. But after a timeout, Kendeigh fired a downcourt inbound pass to Jakubicek (10 rebounds) for a layup and the Trojans were on their way to a wild celebration when the final buzzer sounded.
"We knew against a team like that, even with the big deficit we got ourselves into, you can never give up hope," Jakubicek said.