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Wheaton Warrenville South has had Geneva's number the past year, and the Tigers found a new way to keep the budding rivalry in their favor Tuesday night at the Class 4A Bartlett sectional semifinals.
After coming from behind to beat the Vikings both in last year's sectional and earlier this season at the Benet/Naperville North Tournament, Wheaton Warrenville South made sure it wouldn't need another rally by blitzing Geneva with the first 16 points Tuesday.
DePaul-bound Meghan Waldron opened the game with back-to-back steals she took in for layups, the beginning of her 28-point night and the start of a 16-0 Tigers lead until Sami Pawlak finally put Geneva on the scoreboard five minutes, 36 seconds and two Sarah Meadows timeouts into the game.
Geneva outscored WW South 53-46 the rest of the way, making the Tigers sweat down the stretch as they cut the 16-point deficit to 4 points twice in the final two minutes. WW South made 6 of 9 free throws down the stretch and Waldron came up with another steal and layup in the Tigers' 62-53 victory.
Kelly Langlas, who was out with a knee injury in the first meeting this season, complemented Waldron with 15 points and 10 rebounds in what her coach Rob Kroehnke called her best game of the season.
"We were just ready go get out and come out strong," Langlas said. "We knew they had improved a lot and we had to be ready."
Geneva (19-11) certainly had improved, winners of seven straight until the combination of what Meadows called its worst quarter of the year — the Vikings made just 1 of 14 shots and turned the ball over 5 times — and Waldron — who scored 14 points in each half to follow her 27-point regional final effort — ended their season.
"She's a stud, she's an absolute stud," Meadows said of the Tigers' No. 45. "She's a great player. We knew that going in, she's a hard kid to slow down.
"Just a slow start and you can't have a slow start against a team of this caliber."
Wheaton Warrenville South (28-3) will play for its first sectional championship since 1997 at 7:30 p.m. Thursday against No. 3 seed Wheaton North (22-7). The Falcons held off No. 10 Schaumburg (16-14) 57-54.
Kroehnke started in a matchup zone to avoid foul trouble. Morgan Seberger made five 3-pointers and Sidney Santos three, with those eight 3-point baskets playing a big part in Geneva trimming WW South's huge lead to 31-19 at halftime and 35-29 early in the third quarter when Kroehnke switched to man.
"Come on now, Geneva is a great team, there is no way you are going to be up 80 at the end of this game," Kroehnke said. "We started great and we needed to. You knew they were going to come back. They picked it (the zone) apart in second and third quarter."
Pawlak fed Abby Novak for an inside basket, and it looked like Geneva would be within 42-36 going into the fourth quarter. But Diamond Thompson was awarded a continuation basket after being fouled before going up to shoot, and her three-point play with 1 second left in the third quarter gave the Tigers a 9-point cushion.
Santos and Seberger again connected on 3s that got the Vikings within 52-46 with 3:26 left. After Waldron was whistled for traveling as the Tigers started to delay, Pawlak made a pair of free throws on a possession Geneva kept alive with 3 offensive rebounds making it a 52-48 game with 2:20 left.
Langlas answered with a pair of free throws before Pawlak got Geneva back within 54-50 with her 2 free throws.
Langlas made a free throw for a 55-50 lead, and for the second time Alyssa Zappia hustled for an offensive rebound on the missed second free throw that led to a Waldron free throw and 56-50 lead.
"Ally got a couple great offensive rebounds there," Kroehnke said. "That's what this year has been about, different kids making different plays at different times."
Waldron followed by reading a play set up for a Seberger 3-point attempt perfectly, stealing the ball and scoring on a layup that put the Tigers up 58-50 with 55 seconds left and effectively ended Geneva's comeback.
"Both teams played like they are veteran groups and have been here before," Kroehnke said. "Great game, great effort by both teams. You know deep down it's (the 16-0 start) not going to continue, it's whether you can stop them from making a huge run at you. You know you are going to get their best and they did."
The nervous moments at the end for the Tigers were nothing like the first quarter when they put Geneva in a 19-4 hole. Waldron and Langlas combined for the first 14 points.
"I think we were all shellshocked but once we settled down we clicked more as a team and we fought together to come back and make it close at the end," Geneva forward Kelly Gordon said. "All of us have been playing so long together and we've known each other so long we weren't going to give up on each other."
Zappia added 8 points off the bench for the Tigers who return to the sectional final after losing to Bartlett in overtime in this game a year ago.
"We've been there, we've been in that game," Kroehnke said. "We're excited to be back, and we've got to play. We have the opportunity. We have to make the most of it."
WW South was efficient on the offensive end all night, making 8 of their 14 field goal attempts in the first quarter on its way to a 60.5 percent (23-38) night compared to Geneva at 30.4 percent (14 for 46).
Geneva overcame the shooting disparity to stay in the game with the eight 3s — WW South had none — and by making 17 of its 21 free throws.
"I feel like it was almost in our favor at the end of the half and we just carried it through in the second half. Probably needed about three, four more minutes," Meadows said.
"That first quarter just killed us. It was 6-0 before I could blink. And they were just turnovers on our part back for layups. Right from the get-go that just takes the wind out of you."
Geneva put four players in double figures: Seberger (17), Santos (13), Pawlak (13) and Novak (10). They were the only four who scored for a Vikings team that again overcame another devastating ACL injury in the fourth game of the season to shake off a slow start and keep their conference and regional title streaks alive.
"Great season," Meadows said. "I'm so proud of them every single one of them. We've come so far. You think back at the Christmas tournament where we were and it's not the same team at all."
Gordon, who along with Pawlak will graduate from the starting lineup, played her final basketball game. The three-sport athlete still has her softball coming up soon.
"I can honestly say basketball has been my favorite high school memory," Gordon said. "The friendships I've made with teammates and the relationships I've made with my coaches, they are people I'll have at my wedding and people I'll always cherish. And I can't thank them enough for being there for me and teaching me all the lessons I've learned."
Follow John Lemon on Twitter @jlemonDH