Down by a point in the final minute of the Class 2A Ottawa Marquette regional championship game Thursday night, Charissa Robinson didn’t hesitate to shoot when the ball came to her in the right corner.
When the ball left Robinson’s hand, though, the last place she thought it would end up was the bottom of the net.
“I thought it was off, actually, like an air ball,” Robinson said. “I was really nervous.”
Turns out Robinson’s shot was right on the money, a 3-pointer that put No. 2 seed Aurora Christian ahead to stay in its 53-49 victory over No. 1 seed Seneca.
Robinson’s shot gave the Eagles a 49-47 lead and came after Seneca’s defense collapsed on a driving Alyssa Andersen.
“I was just open and had to make a big play for the team,” said Robinson, a transfer from Wheaton Academy.
Seneca (22-6) turned the ball over on its next possession. With 35 seconds left Andersen split free throws for a 3-point lead.
Danielle Hauch hit a jumper to bring Seneca within 50-49.
Kirsten Madsen sank 2 free throws with 17 seconds remaining for a 52-49 lead, and Jacey Lamboley’s bid for overtime from the top of the key rimmed out with 5 seconds to go.
Madsen made one more free throw for the final margin.
“That was just a battle,” Eagles coach Jerry Tokars said. “Big shots on both sides.”
Aurora Christian (15-13) returns home to host the sectional, playing the state’s No. 7 ranked team Byron (27-3) at 8 p.m. Tuesday.
The field also includes the state’s No. 6 team, Prophetstown (27-3), who plays Oregon in the first semifinal.
“Having a sectional puts pressure on you,” said Tokars, whose team won its second straight regional. “You want to be there. You don’t want to be hosting a dinner party and looking in outside the window. You want to be at the table. We’re at the table.
“We’re going to be major underdogs. That’s all right.”
Both teams came out hot Thursday, trading a string of jumpers and 3s to an early 7-7 tie. There were 16 ties or lead changes in the game.
Aurora Christian opened up its largest lead of half at 15-9 sparked by a pair of drives from Madsen and Natasha Brown.
Seneca took its first lead at 22-20 on its fifth second-chance basket, this one by Hauch. The Eagles closed the half on a 9-4 run to lead 29-26 at halftime. Brown already had a double by half with 10 points and 10 rebounds.
“I was jumping for joy, jumping for Jesus I guess you could say,” Brown said. “I wanted to play my game, play for Him. I’m still shaking right now. Definitely a team effort. I just want to do my part to help my team out.”
Brown finished with 12 points, 4 steals and a career-high 23 rebounds.
“She brought her game tonight,” Seneca coach Barb Beck said. “She can jump out of the gym. I give her credit. She carried the load for them. That was the difference. I know she’s a very talented young lady.”
Brown opened the second half with two more offensive boards on the Eagles’ first possession. Seneca erased a 5-point deficit with another putback to tie the game at 32, but Madsen immediately answered with a 3. The Eagles led 37-36 after three quarters.
The lead changed hands four times in the final quarter. The Eagles caught a break with five minutes left when Anna Baker, who had 14 points and 11 rebounds at the time, was whistled for her fifth foul.
Gabby Galbato sank both free throws for a 39-38 lead, and soon after she put the Eagles up 44-40 with an inside score as part of her 9-point night off the bench.
“She (Baker) makes a silly decision to reach,” Beck said. “In the heat of the game she’s a competitor and is going to go for the ball. She was having a great game. Losing her was huge.”
But the Lady Irish kept battling, and after Andersen scored following her steal for a 46-42 lead, Mallory Misener knocked down a jumper and Hauch converted a three-point play with 1:28 remaining to put Seneca up for the final time at 47-46.
The partisan Irish crowd was roaring at that point until Robinson quieted them with her 3-pointer. She finished with 7 points, part of a balanced scoring effort: Brown (12), Madsen (11), Galbato (9) and Andersen (9).
Rebounding was the furthest thing from balanced; Brown’s 23 boards to the next closest Eagle with 4. Brown grabbed a pair of offensive rebounds on missed free throws in the final minutes.
“She was possessed,” Tokars said. “I think she just willed this game. She’s just unbelievable.”