They said it themselves. When the Neuqua Valley girls basketball players thought as individuals early in Friday night's Class 4A regional final at Plainfield South, life could have been better.
But when the Wildcats, the top seed in the Joliet Central sectional, turned up the switch on team play to full blast, life turned into a 63-37 win over Oswego East and a regional championship. Next for Neuqua Valley (26-5) is a 6 p.m. Monday sectional semifinal showdown against fourth-seeded Benet. The teams haven't faced each other so far this season.
"It's a big game and we want to win," said senior Niki Lazar, who led the Wildcats with a game-high 21 points. "We were trying to do everything ourselves and not looking for the open teammate. Later, we started looking to make the open pass."
After Neuqua scored the game's first basket, the Wolves (17-12) went on a 7-0 run. Later, the Wildcats responded with an 8-0 run of their own courtesy of baskets from Najee Smith, Bryce Menendez, who finished with 12 points, and a 2-pointer and 3-pointer from Maya Starks.
However, at quarter's end the Wolves' were right on Neuqua's heels trailing just 13-12. Oswego East continued to keep pace into the second quarter although Neuqua's play was improving. The Wolves though trailed just by single digits at halftime, 29-20.
Oswego East enjoyed a 20-12 rebounding advantage at halftime. But that changed in the final two quarters as Menendez, Lazar and Smith combined for 17 second-half rebounds, which was most of their team's rebounds during that span, to give Neuqua ownership of the glass again.
"We succeed when we move the ball and when we started moving the ball tonight that was key. And rebounds are so important. (The Wolves) were staying in the game in the first half because they were getting second shots. We stopped that in the second half," Menendez said.
Neuqua Valley outscored Oswego East 34-17 in the final two quarters to win its third straight regional title.
Oswego East was led by Julianna Wadsworth's 8 points followed by Venita Parsons with 7.
Ten Wildcats saw significant minutes and coach Mike Williams said having those lineup options has been crucial to the team's success this season.
"The key is our depth. Everyone can shoot and everyone plays hard," he said.
What also is important to him is seeing his team hungry to go as far as it can this postseason.
"They're excited about the regional. But I hear them saying that it's not enough. If they keep doing that, I am OK with that," Williams said.