Crystal Lake South and senior Sara Mickow did their best to rebound from a slow start against North Chicago in Saturday afternoon's championship game of the 25th Annual Northern Illinois Girls Holiday Classic.
The 5-foot-11 Mickow grabbed 27 rebounds to go with 16 points as the Gators got in position to cut a 21-point halftime deficit to single digits in the third quarter. But North Chicago recovered to build a 22-point lead and claim its first Classic title with a 69-53 victory in McHenry.
"It's definitely mentally hard when you're down 20 at halftime and you're trying to chip that away," Mickow said after she had 10 points and 18 rebounds in the second half. "We can't let ourselves get in that situation and we have to come out from the beginning."
But Mickow typified the fight the defending tourney champion Gators (10-6) showed. She had 13 offensive rebounds in her third game with 20 or more rebounds this season.
"I think it's a mental thing and sighting where the ball is going," Mickow said. "I've played basketball long enough that I've gotten pretty good at knowing where the ball is going to come off the rim.
"In practice and in games, practice makes perfect."
And CLS coach Kyle McCaughn can attest to how tough it is when he tries to battle Mickow in practices.
"She's such a dominant force on the boards," McCaughn said. "She reads the ball so well and is in the proper position. She battles and she fights.
"I don't think people have a true appreciation for the outcome of what she does. It's impressive to end up seeing what she does."
But the Warhawks (10-6) didn't give Mickow many first-half chances at rebounds as they shot 64 percent from the field (16-for-25) en route to a 43-22 lead at intermission. Tineesha Coleman (21 points, 6 rebounds) and Samantha Rodriguez (15 points with 3 3-pointers, 7 assists) combined for 29 points.
"They were a really athletic team and we were kind of caught on our heels with that," Mickow said after the Gators missed 19 of their first 20 shots.
"It was just like practice, they executed very well," North Chicago coach Laurence Brown said. "We want to run and we want to push the ball and they showed me they could do it.
"We came back out not ready to play (in the second half) and I think my players got overconfident in what they were doing."
When sophomore Chanel Fanter (14 points, 5 rebounds) found Mickow for a layup the Gators' deficit was 47-36 with 1:12 left in the third. But Coleman's 3-point play 17 seconds later started a 15-4 burst for the Warhawks.
Kianna Clark added 10 points for the Gators, who shot just 25.5 percent from the floor (14-for-55) but made 25 of 38 free throws.
"I give our kids so much credit," McCaughn said. "We outplayed them in the second half and we outscored them. They answered the bell they had to answer and I'm proud of the way the kids played in the second half."