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Of the many words that could be used to describe Neuqua Valley's 65-61 girls basketball win at South Elgin Monday night, one is all that's needed.
In a game that saw 47 fouls called, 71 free throws attempted, two bloody lips, three technical fouls and one coach ejection, the end result was the Wildcats claiming their second straight Upstate Eight Valley championship.
"It was a tough game that started going south a little and getting out of hand but our kids adjusted," said Neuqua Valley coach Mike Williams. "South Elgin's a good basketball team. They never stop playing."
The Storm (16-8, 7-3) had to overcome a first half in which they were whistled for 17 fouls that resulted in 30 Neuqua Valley free-throw attempts, 21 of which the Wildcats made in building a 36-24 lead at the intermission.
Six of those free throws came with 3:31 left in the second quarter. After South Elgin was whistled for a foul, Storm coach Tim Prendergast picked up two quick technicals and was ejected from the game. Senior Nikki Lazar made the free throws off the foul and senior Malia Smith then hit 4 of 4 from the technical to turn a 20-14 lead into a 26-14 advantage.
"I've had a history with (the official)," said Prendergast, who will now be, by IHSA rule, unable to coach Wednesday night when his team visits Barrington.
"Unfortunately I let it get the best of me. I feel like I let the team down. I'm very disappointed with myself for losing my composure. I have to pay the consequences, this game and next game. There was no reason for me to get two technicals."
"That was crazy -- I've never seen anything like it. That was more exciting than the Super Bowl," said Williams of the first half. "Things were just going along and then next thing I know we're shooting technicals."
Turned out, the Wildcats (21-5, 10-0) needed all those free throws because, as Williams said, South Elgin never quit playing. With senior Savanah Uveges, who was held scoreless in the first half, hitting for 18 points including 4 3-pointers in the second half, the Storm charged back into the game and cut the Neuqua lead to 58-56 on 2 free throws from senior Kennede Miller with 3:34 left to play. But after successfully holding the ball for over two minutes, the Wildcats then got a huge baseline drive basket from 5-foot-6 sophomore Maya Starks to make it a 60-56 game. South Elgin couldn't score down the stretch and Neuqua got a free throw from senior Lauren Deveikis and two from Starks to go ahead 63-56 with 26 seconds left. Uveges scored 10 seconds later to make it 63-58 but Niki Lazar sealed the win for the Wildcats with two free throws with nine seconds to go, making Uveges' 3-pointer with two seconds left moot.,
"I like my coach knowing I can take that role," said Starks, who in her first game back from a hamstring injury played considerable minutes as Najee Smith and Malia Smith, who both fouled out, were in foul trouble most of the second half.
"Two of our key players fouled out and I knew I had to step up and do something."
And Starks did so with little apprehension.
"She plays with no fear," said Williams. "She's too short to have any fear."
Najee Smith led Neuqua Valley, which made just 16 of 46 from the field and ended up shooting 28-for-40 from the free-throw line, with 18 points. Malia Smith and Lazar had 14 each and senior Bryce Menendez added 10 points and 7 rebounds.
"You want this before regionals," Williams said. "This helps prepare you."
Sophomore Nadia Yang added 11 points for South Elgin, which was 17 of 41 from the field and 21 of 31 from the line. Miller added 8 points and 7 rebounds.
"We've played these guys toe-to-toe twice," said Prendergast of Neuqua Valley. "Moving forward, I wouldn't want to play us in the state tournament. I'm excited. We've got eight losses but they're all quality losses and I like my team."