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Geneva and St. Charles East's girls basketball teams ended up playing 12 of the most entertaining quarters of basketball you could ask for this season, two teams with contrasting styles that could not possibly have been more evenly matched.
When Amanda Hilton scored on a floater with a second left in the first half of Thursday's Class 4A St. Charles East regional championship game, the Saints took a 29-28 lead to halftime and the cumulative score of the teams' three games stood at St. Charles East 179, Geneva 178.
The final two quarters, however, the Vikings proved in emphatic fashion why they still set the standard of excellence for area girls basketball.
Geneva turned up its defensive pressure, used its athleticism and height to frustrate the Saints' top scorers, and outscored St. Charles East 35-10 in the second half to win a fifth straight regional championship, 63-39.
That final score was a far cry from the 81-75 and 75-69 games — both in overtime — the teams split in the regular season.
"Our main goal was to play with confidence tonight and we came out of the locker room thinking, 'Hey they are up by 1, they are playing pretty good basketball, but we said this is going to be our half and we are going to dominate the half," Geneva junior Morgan Seberger said. "We just decided to show up in the second half and take control and do what Geneva girls basketball knows how to do."
No. 4 seed Geneva (19-10) advances to the Class 4A Bartlett sectional where the Vikings will play No. 1 seed Wheaton Warrenville South (27-3) at 6 p.m. Tuesday in a rematch of last year's sectional semifinal won by the Tigers. The teams also played earlier this season with WW South winning 58-47.
Kelly Gordon hit a jumper to quickly put Geneva ahead 30-29 in the third quarter. After the teams battled through 10 ties and lead changes in the first half, Gordon's bucket gave Geneva the lead for good and started a 16-3 burst to open the second half.
"We just committed to play defense," Geneva coach Sarah Meadows said. "We're going to win this game on the defensive end. They did everything we asked them to do. I felt like everything we talked about this week they did it on the court. It worked."
Eleventh-seed St. Charles East (18-12) hit just 1 of 12 shots in the third quarter, the only make coming with 17 seconds left, and 2 of 15 attempts in the fourth for 11 percent shooting (3 for 27) in the second half.
"The second half just ice cold but part of that was we didn't get a lot of good looks," Saints coach Lori Drumtra said. "On the other end they can kind of pound it in."
Abby Novak followed Gordon's basket with consecutive field goals, and Pawlak knocked down a jumper. Seberger fed Janie McCloughan for two and then hit her own 17-footer before Pawlak found a wide-open Gordon underneath to give Geneva its first double-digit lead at 42-32.
Madeline Dunn ended the third quarter with a putback basket and a 46-34 lead. The Vikings then scored six straight points in the fourth quarter — two Sidney Santos free throws and a pair of Novak baskets — to make it a 54-36 game as things quickly spiraled out of control for a Saints team that entered on a six-game winning streak and had jumped to a 12-3 lead.
"It kind of got away and I think we were having a hard time answering," said Drumtra whose team was playing their third game in four days. "They did a good job shutting down our transition, and we kind of wore down."
The Vikings also did a good job shutting down Saints leading scorer Hilton who scored 33 points in the teams' last meeting but was held to 7 points on 2-of-14 shooting. After Carly Pottle shot the Vikings out of a 1-2-2 zone with 10 points in the first four minutes of the game, Novak did most of the work guarding Hilton as Geneva switched to a man-to-man.
"I was discouraged because she had 33 points, who wouldn't be, but I had faith in my team they would have my back if she got by me," Novak said. "She was great last game. I just tried playing her really tight because I know she's a great shooter. She's really fast. She can get around me and go to the hoop so I kind of laid off and kept my hand up. It was hard for her to go either way."
The first half looked a lot like the teams' two classic Upstate Eight games. Geneva ended the first quarter on a 10-0 run to lead 13-12 behind Pawlak's 10 points.
Seberger started hitting 3s from everywhere in the second quarter including one that followed 2 blocks by Pawlak on the defensive end to put the Vikings up 28-25 only to see Hilton score 4 points in the final 23 seconds to give the Saints a 29-28 halftime lead.
"The fist half we weren't making a lot of close shots and the second half we were finding open girls and making our easy shots," Pawlak said.
"I knew Geneva was going to come back, they have too much firepower not to come back, but I thought the first hal was very entertainng, very fast-paced, fun to watch," Drumtra said.
In addition to her 14 points and 17 rebounds, Pawlak blocked 6 shots. The balanced Vikings also got big games out of Novak (16 points, 8 rebounds), Seberger (13 points), Gordon (9 points) and Santos (6 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 blocked shots).
"When we did penetrate they blocked a lot of shots," Drumtra said. "And that starts to get in your head a little bit and you start to avoid them."
Pottle led the Saints with 12 points, and Hilton, Laney Deckrow (10 rebounds) and Katie Claussner all scored 7. Hannah Nowling battled for 8 rebounds as the Saints overcame adversity to finish the season strong.
"They fought hard," Drumtra said. "We wanted the opportunity, this was our goal to be in this game. I think we had a good chance of winning it. I'm very proud of the season. We're going to miss our seniors. They went out on a high note."
Follow John Lemon on Twitter @jlemonDH