Neuqua Valley coach Mike Williams was glad to have the season opener done and out of the way.
Facing St. Thomas More of Champaign, Illinois, the Wildcats staked their opponents to a 20-11 first-quarter lead, cut the deficit to one on four separate occasions, but never took the lead the entire game, falling 67-53 Tuesday night.
St. Thomas More was led by 6-foot-4 sophomore Tori McCoy's 25 points, including 14 in the second half.
"There were some uncharacteristic things that we did defensively that hurt us," Williams said. "I think we were so focused on Tori that we didn't rotate, close out and do some of the things that we normally do. You can't make those kinds of mistakes against good teams and expect to survive."
The Sabers, coming off an IHSA Class 2A final appearance, jumped out to a 7-0 lead as Neuqua Valley missed its first six shots from the field.
A 3-pointer by Niki Lazar at the 3:50 mark of the first quarter was the Wildcats' first made field goal of the game.
Lazar scored her team's first six points of the second quarter, first on a baseline 3-pointer, followed by a layup and free throw that cut the Sabers lead to 20-17.
A fastbreak layup by Bryce Menendez trimmed the Sabers lead to 20-19 and the Wildcats managed to get within one point three more times in the second quarter.
However, two quick baskets by McCoy and teammate Alexa Wallen in the final minute of the half put St. Thomas More up 33-28 heading into the third quarter.
Neuqua Valley's closest deficit of the second half came when Najee Smith scored on a layup off a Wildcats steal, cutting the Sabers' lead to 39-36.
McCoy again responded, this time scoring back-to-back baskets in the paint to give her team a 45-38 lead at the end of the third quarter.
A 3-pointer from the top of the key by Kai Moon with 1:30 left trimmed St. Thomas More's lead down to 57-49 before the Wildcats called timeout.
Following the timeout, the Sabers scored on their next three possessions, breaking the Wildcats press with a layup by Randa Harshbarger, followed by another fastbreak layup by Elizabeth Bristow and a baseline 3-pointer by Courtney Wax to put the game out of reach.
"You've got to get this first one out of the way, move on and that's what we plan to do going forward," Williams said. "We'll count on our senior leadership to pick us back up and we'll be fine."
Moon led Neuqua Valley with 14 points, while Smith added 11 and Lazar had 9.