The Fox Valley Conference may continue to choose not to call it a championship game, but don't tell that to the players or coaches from Cary-Grove and Grayslake North.
The Trojans and Knights played with all the intensity of any championship affair Friday night when the FVC division champions met in Cary-Grove's Elroy Fitzgerald Gymnasium. And when all was said and done, Cary-Grove's girls basketball team had come away with its third straight "unofficial" FVC crown after holding off the Knights 56-48.
"It was definitely one of our goals to make it to the crossover championship game," said Cary-Grove senior Olivia Jakubicek, who scored a game-high 24 points for the Trojans. "Even though they don't call it a championship game we wanted to give a championship effort."
The Trojans (21-6) did just that in winning their 12th straight game and stopping Grayslake North's winning streak at 10. In fact, C-G took the Knights' best shot, several of them in fact, and didn't wilt.
The Knights (25-4) hit three 3-pointers in taking a 17-13 lead after one quarter before the Trojans' defense clamped down and held the visitors to just 13 points in the next two quarters, taking a 35-30 lead after three periods. A helter-skelter fourth quarter saw Jakubicek, who was 14 of 17 from the free-throw line for the night, make 9 of 12 from the line as the Trojans won the quarter 21-18 to come away with the win.
"We had a hard time attacking their zone at first but once we talked about it and settled down and did what we practiced we were OK," Jakubicek said.
To Grayslake North coach Nathan Flannery, the big key was Cary-Grove being able to dictate the flow of the game after the first quarter.
"They did a good job of getting the tempo they like to play at," Flannery said of the Trojans. "We like to run and get a lot of shots up and they did a good job of slowing us down."
Cary-Grove coach Rod Saffert agreed.
"Man they can shoot the 3," Saffert said of the Knights, who hit 7 of 17 from 3-point range. "And they're quick. But once we decided not to press we wanted to play tough half-court defense and we did."
Cary-Grove, the top seed in next week's Class 4A Crystal Lake South regional, led 25-23 at halftime after Jakubicek scored the final 5 points of the second quarter. She had two fouls and Saffert rotated her in on offense only in the last 48 seconds of the half.
The Knights took leads of 26-25 and 28-27 early in the third quarter, and trailed just 32-30 when Cary-Grove senior Kylie Smith's 3-pointer with 1:25 left gave C-G a 35-30 lead entering the fourth period. The Knights didn't quit, though, and took a 44-41 lead on a 3-pointer from sophomore Emily Dugan with 4:20 to play. But over the next 37 seconds, Jakubicek hit a free throw, made a basket on a nifty inside move, then broke free when senior Joslyn Nicholson stole the ball at half court and found her classmate open for a layup to give the Trojans a 45-44 lead. Grayslake North junior Kendall Detweiler would score with 2:07 to go to give the Knights a 46-45 advantage but Nicholson took a feed from junior Sarah Kendeigh and made a tough contested layup to put the Trojans up 47-46 with 1:43 to go. From there, the parade to the free-throw line began with Jakubicek, who had 7 steals on defense, making 7 of 8 and sophomore Katie Barker 2 of 2 down the stretch for the Trojans.
"One of my goals was to have a higher free throw percentage this year," said Jakubicek, now at 77.4 percent for the season. "We knew (Grayslake North) averaged a high number of points and we focused a lot on our defense. We wanted to control the temp and we ended up doing that. They're a great shooting team but our defense picked it up and limited their 3-point looks."
And winning a conference championship because of it, regardless if the league calls it that or not.
"I don't know why they don't, that's not my call," said Saffert. "But what else would you want from a championship game?"
Nothing more, agreed Flannery, whose team is the No. 6 seed in next week's Class 4A Libertyville sectional complex.
"That's exactly what we needed," he said. "We haven't had to play a 32-minute game in a while. I've been more upset about some of our wins than this loss. You have pride. We all respect each other and (Saffert) is a great coach. We got better tonight. We saw some of our weaknesses and some things we need to work on before we go into a tough regional."
Nicholson added 10 points and 5 assist for the Trojans and Barker had 8 points. Detweiler led the Knights with 17 points, which included four 3-pointers, and senior Joanna Guhl added 10 points and 9 rebounds.