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Neuqua Valley is getting healthy at just the right time.
Kai Moon returned to the lineup for the first time in three weeks Friday. The sophomore came off the bench and scored a team-high 15 points, leading the Wildcats to a 56-49 victory at Batavia in a matchup of the Upstate Eight Conference Valley and River champions.
Moon, who was sidelined with a left ankle injury, was glad to contribute to Neuqua Valley’s 12th straight win — not that it all came easy.
“I definitely need to get on a treadmill,” Moon joked. “I was a little nervous trying to get back in the feel of things. I got more comfortable as the game went on.”
The Wildcats spent much of the night at the free-throw line, making 21 of 35 to Batavia’s 9 of 11. Moon was one of the few Wildcats who took advantage, hitting 5 of her 6 attempts including all 4 in the fourth quarter to never let Batavia get closer than 5 points.
“When we got Batavia into the double bonus it definitely helped a lot,” Moon said. “We were able to get free points at the charity stripe. You can’t ask for anything better than that even though we could have made more.”
Neuqua Valley (24-5) also played in the first-place crossover game last year, losing to Geneva. The Wildcats head into the postseason next week as the No. 1 seed into the Class 4A Joliet Central sectional.
“It’s a good game to get tuned in for the regionals,” Wildcats coach Mike Williams said. “A lot of balance, good defense. Early on it was a little rusty. We have some momentum going into regionals and sectionals.”
Batavia (18-9), who had lost 2 of its last 4 games, got off to a good start. Liza Fruendt opened the game with 2 free throws on a technical foul called on the Wildcats for a roster error in their book.
It turned out to be her only points of the first half, yet Batavia managed to lead most of the half. Hannah Frazier, who joined Fruendt on the all-conference team honored at halftime, converted her second three-point play to give Batavia its largest lead at 13-6 early in the second quarter.
The Bulldogs still led 17-12 on Erin Bayram’s layup before Moon hit a 3-pointer from the left corner to start a 13-2 Wildcat run to close the half. Moon’s deep 3 with a minute left put Neuqua ahead for the first time at 22-19, and Malia Smith followed with a 3-point play in transition for a 25-19 halftime lead.
“I can’t be too upset,” Batavia coach Kevin Jensen said. “I thought we played outstanding defense in the first half. Even though it was a loss I feel we kind of got back on track with how we played.”
Batavia made several runs at Neuqua in the second half but never regained the lead. Fruendt made her first field goal, a jumper from the foul line, to bring Batavia within 29-27.
Later in the quarter Bayram scored inside to trim Neuqua’s lead to 37-35, and Fruendt banked in a runner to make it 39-37, but the Wildcats maintained a 42-37 lead going to the fourth.
Fruendt’s back-to-back 3s midway through the fourth cut the deficit to 48-43, and Bayram scored to make it 50-45 with 3:25 left, but Batavia got no closer. The Wildcats forced 7 turnovers in the fourth quarter and 23 for the game while holding Fruendt to 16 points — 9 below her average.
“Liza kind of caught fire in the second half but she was our main focal point in stopping,” Moon said. “I think we were lucky she wasn’t hitting her 3s.”
Niki Lazar added 15 points for Neuqua.
“They have a ton of depth, they have a ton of good players,” Jensen said. “They are relentless on defense. You feel you have the press broken and all of a sudden there are three people on your hip to get a back tip.”
Bayram also scored 16 points for Batavia and grabbed 10 rebounds. Frazier finished with 13 points, 6 boards and 2 blocks. Those two plus Fruendt scored all but 4 of Batavia’s points.
“It’s a long way from the beatings we got the fist two years,” Jensen said of 35-point losses to Neuqua in recent years. “That’s a state contending team as far as I’m concerned.
“I told the girls tonight, it doesn’t mean anything but let’s treat it like a postseason game. We prepared like it was a postseason game. If we get ready for somebody like Neuqua Valley by default that prepares us for anybody we’ll see.”