The Neuqua Valley coaches may not have liked the expressions on their players' faces at halftime Monday night, but they sure had to like all the smiles they saw afterward.
The Wildcats trailed Trinity by 5 points at the break during the final game of the 24th annual McDonald's Shootout at Willowbrook High School. The Blazers took to the floor with a slightly better record and slightly higher state ranking and, with guard Annie McKenna leading all scorers with 13 points, they led after two quarters.
But Neuqua Valley drew even after three quarters and then played a superb fourth quarter to finish off the Blazers 68-58 to improve to 16-5 on the year. The 1-2 offensive punch of Malia Smith and Niki Lazar powered the comeback, but it was a solid team effort on both ends of the floor that sparked the turnaround.
"At halftime coaches looked at our faces and we just looked scared," said Lazar, whose trio of 3s helped Neuqua hang close in the first half. "That's not us. We're a very mature team. We don't need to be scared. So we came out in the second half and we dominated."
Lazar had a big night that included 20 points and 5 assists, but it was Smith who really stole the show in the second half. After scoring 7 points in the first half, the senior guard busted loose for 20 points over the final 16 minutes to finish with a personal-high 27.
"(At the half) our coach was like, guys, somebody needs to come up with intensity," Smith said. "I was like I'm gonna do this. I'm gonna do this. I played my heart out for my team. I just wanted to get this win for my team because everybody really wanted this win tonight."
The marquee win did not come easy as the Blazers led 42-35 midway through the third quarter after DePaul-bound guard Lauren Prochaska came away with a steal and fed Kaitlyn Aylward for a layup.
But the Wildcats then used an 11-4 run to enter the fourth quarter even at 46. Trinity did take a 51-48 lead on a three-point play by Proschaska, but Najee Smith scored underneath and Lazar and Kai Moon each added 3s and Neuqua was up 56-53 with 3:41 left to play and never trailed again.
"This is a big win for us. It gets us over the hump," Neuqua coach Mike Williams said. "This takes us to a different level and now the expectations are even higher."
While Malia Smith and Lazar were combining for 47 points, Bryce Menendez was shining on defense, finishing with 10 points, 11 rebounds and 4 blocked shots for the Wildcats.
For the Blazers (16-4), McKenna finished with 18 points and Prochaska added 14.
"We're disappointed. We thought we had a good game plan and we thought our defense was on early," Trinity coach Ed Stritzel said. "You can't let a team like that stay around. They gave us opportunities to put it away and we let them back in."