When a fractured kneecap ended Amanda Hilton's basketball career at St. Charles East last week, the Saints' other concern was whether the all-conference point guard's injury would end the team's season hopes, too.
St. Charles East struggled to adjust to Hilton's absence in its first three games without her, beating Elgin but losing at Streamwood and getting shelled 63-41 at Batavia on Tuesday. The Saints' problems continued on Senior Night Friday when Larkin erased a 15-8 deficit and jumped ahead 30-26 early in the third quarter.
That's when Katelyn Claussner officially took the baton from Hilton as the Saints' new floor leader.
The junior point guard erupted for 10 third-quarter points to spark a 26-2 spurt that propelled the hosts to a 58-43 Upstate Eight River Division victory.
Claussner finished with a season-high 22 points, six steals and four assists. Her performance communicated to coach Lori Drumtra that she is ready to fill a leadership vacuum left by Hilton's injury at a critical juncture, as East enters the stretch run of its regular season and the IHSA playoffs loom next month.
"This was definitely Katelyn's best game since Amanda went down," Drumtra said. "She took the ball to the hoop and did a good job of anticipating passes on defense. Her performance is something I think she needed to boost her self-confidence. She really picked up the team."
Claussner rose to the occasion when East needed her most. Having lost 64-32 to the Saints Dec. 6 in Elgin, Larkin (6-12 overall, 2-5 River Division) caught St. Charles by surprise in the first half, scoring 11 unanswered points to erase a 19-8 second-quarter deficit and edge within 26-24 at halftime.
The Royals' strong play continued early in the third quarter when a pair of fast-break layups by Tori Patterson (16 points) moved Larkin in front 30-26 before a stunned crowd at East. Patterson paced the comeback with 10 second-quarter points on 4-for-4 shooting in addition to her baskets to start the second half.
"Tori plays with so much intensity," Larkin coach Ruben Flores said. "Driving the lane and getting out on the fast break is her forte. As a team, we were right where we wanted to be at that point."
That's when Claussner led a rally that derailed the Royals' upset plans. The Saints began switching defenses between a 1-3-1 zone trap, man-to-man and a 2-3 zone. The strategy seemed to confuse Larkin's guards, as the visitors committed eight turnovers in the third quarter, with Claussner and co-captain Hannah Nowling leading the charge with three steals apiece and Nowling adding six rebounds.
St. Charles East (10-10, 4-3) converted most of Larkin's miscues into fast-break layups. Claussner supplied four of those layups, including one nifty basket where she faked a pass across the lane to Hannah Vitkus to freeze the defender, then kept possession of the ball and rose up for the uncontested layup. In all, 14 of East's 26 points in the decisive run came in the open court and left the Saints comfortably ahead 52-32.
"I've been in a shooting slump all season," Claussner said, "so it felt good to get in a groove scoring tonight and get to the basket for easy shots."
Claussner realizes how much the Saints need her the remainder of the season with Hilton unable to play.
"I love playing with Amanda. Not getting to play with her is heart-breaking," she admitted. "But it's now my time to step up and help the team. Amanda's been a big support to me in all of this. She's a great teammate and mentor. She encourages me and gives me a lot of confidence and great advice. She's been saying to always keep going forward no matter what happens on the court and to never give up. I really appreciate her."
The Saints hope to continue moving up the River Division standings when they host St. Charles North at 4:30 p.m. Saturday. East defeated its crosstown rival 72-68 Dec. 7 at North.
"It's going to be a great game," Claussner said. "This is our house. We're going to go at it hard to defend our home court."
Larkin looks to bounce back when it visits Streamwood at 6 p.m. Saturday. The Royals then conclude the Elgin City Classic at noon Monday against Elgin Academy.
The Royals want to continue building momentum through victories in order to attract more players to the program. Larkin dressed only eight players for Friday's game and starts two freshmen. One of the freshman, guard Marlee Kyles, poured in 15 points against the Saints. The other freshman is center Haley Casebeer.
"They're both great girls," Flores said. "They're also both smart players who have a good understanding of the game for their age. They're the future of Larkin basketball."