Neuqua Valley spent last week in the girls basketball frying pan. Monday it jumped into the fire.
The Wildcats turned their defensive heat on DeKalb in Monday afternoon's Montini Christmas Tournament first-round game, defeating the Barbs 58-35 in Lombard.
The Wildcats placed second to Marian Catholic -- also playing at Montini this week -- at Oswego's tournament Saturday.
"It's surprisingly easy," Wildcats guard Najee Smith said of the tournament transition. "We wanted to win that tournament and we didn't, so we (prepare) ourselves for these games coming up."
A pair of tough tournaments won't make the won-loss record look very good, though.
"Oh, we'll take a loss or two," Smith said. "I definitely want to say we're going up against the best."
"We want the tough games, whatever happens. Right now a loss doesn't mean anything, but it does in February when you're done," Neuqua Valley coach Mike Williams added.
The Wildcats (11-3) led 16-13 after one quarter, but they pulled away in the second, outscoring DeKab 15-4, the lead going into double digits for good when Niki Lazar converted a three-point play with 1:17 to go. They held the Barbs to just 4 points again in the third quarter.
"We gave up a lot of easy baskets in the first quarter," Smith said. "Our coach was like, this is our game if we play defense, and we weren't. Our coach said go for steals."
"The defense stepped it up the second and third quarters," added Williams, acknowledging a little letdown following the Marian Catholic loss at Oswego and the upcoming holidays. "You could tell we were ready to go and have some holiday cheer. You can only beat a dead horse so much."
The Wildcats forced 9 DeKalb turnovers in each of the middle quarters. Smith finished with 5 steals to go with her 9 points.
"We knew it was coming," DeKalb coach Chris Davenport said. "I had watched them once, I got them on video. It's nonstop. They're going to keep pushing and pushing and pushing, and when we decided to start throwing the ball all over the gym, that was the turning point."
Madelyne Johnson, a 6-foot-1 junior, led DeKalb with 11 points, 9 in the first quarter.
"We definitely wanted to take away No. 23, Johnson, because she's such a strong player," Smith said.
Kai Moon led the Wildcats with 15 points. Lazar added 10.
Neuqua Valley, ranked No. 5 in the Daily Herald Top 20, meets No. 2 Rolling Meadows at 4:45 p.m. Thursday in a tournament quarterfinal in Lombard.
"This is definitely great experience," Smith said. "It's going to get us a lot more experience against really good teams. We're definitely going to have to take it to the next level. We're playing tough right now, but I think these teams are definitely going to force us to step it up."
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