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The state basketball tournament has provided its share of unsung heroes over the years.
Add Burlington Central sophomore Sam Cruz to the list.
With a nip-and-tuck defensive battle hanging in the balance Saturday afternoon in Aurora, the 5-foot-6 Rockets’ guard came up with the two biggest baskets of her young career to help her team to a regional championship.
Cruz broke free for consecutive layups on back door feeds from alert teammates Shelby Holt and Sam Pryor, turning a 35-33 Rocket lead into a 39-33 advantage with 2:31 left to play.
Alison Colby and Sam Pryor sealed the win going 4-for-4 from the free-throw line in the final 18 seconds as top-seeded Burlington Central held off No. 2 St. Edward 43-35 in the title game of the Class 3A Aurora Central Catholic regional.
The Rockets (24-4), now two wins from a return to the Elite Eight, will take on Sycamore (21-7) at 6 p.m. Monday in the first semifinal of the Belvidere sectional. BC beat Sycamore 41-37 in November. Rockford Lutheran plays Woodstock in the second semi Monday and the winners return on Thursday for the right to play in the March 3 Hoffman Estates supersectional, which BC advanced to last year before losing to eventual state runner-up Vernon Hills.
“We just worked together as a team,” said Cruz, who finished with 7 points and 3 steals. “We had to slow down on offense. I just got free and Pryor (and Holt) made great passes.”
How important were Cruz’s two layups?
“Those two plays broke us,” said St. Edward coach Michelle Dawson, whose team had won 6 straight and 8 of 9 coming into Saturday’s game.
In a game that had seven ties and six lead changes, it was also Cruz who gave the Rockets the lead for good.
Trailing 28-26 after St. Edward’s Casey Gredzieleski hit a 3-pointer with 3:31 left in the third quarter, Cruz came up with a steal and layup, was fouled and made the free throw to put BC ahead 29-28 with 3:06 left in the quarter. The Green Wave (19-9) got to within 31-30 at the end of the third but couldn’t get any closer in the fourth.
“We’ve been talking to the girls about how close games in the playoffs, you just want to survive and move on,” said Rockets’ coach Mark Smith, whose team won its ninth straight. “St. Ed’s was everything we thought they would be. Good team.”
The Green Wave broke out to an early 7-2 lead and grabbed a 13-10 advantage after one quarter as senior Katie Swanson scored 8 of her 19 points, including hitting 2 of her 4 3-pointers in the game.
The Rockets battled back and took a 19-17 lead late in the second quarter but Swanson, who scored 16 of her points in the first half, nailed 2 treys in the final 1:16 to give the Wave a 23-19 halftime lead.
The tide started to turn as the second half began with Central on a 6-0 run fueled by a 3-pointer from Holt and baskets by Pryor and Colby for a 25-23 lead with 5:50 left in the third.
St. Edward’s 28-26 lead on Gredzieleski’s 3 was the Wave’s last lead of the game.
“Burlington took us out of our normal half-court rhythm in the fourth quarter,” said Dawson. “They were defending the passing lanes so well. They’re a talented team. We gave them a game today but it didn’t come out our way in the end.”
Playing better defense was the focus in the BC locker room at halftime.
“We did a much better job on Swanson in the second half,” said Smith, whose team held St. Edward to just 3 of 19 shooting from 2-point range for the game as well as a season low in points.
“You could see in (Kayla) Ross’ face at halftime she was upset with herself and she had something to prove in the second half.”
Also key was the inside play of the junior Colby, who at 5-11 did a superior job on both ends of the floor against 6-3 St. Edward junior CeCe Rapp. Colby, who scored 10 points, limited Rapp’s opportunities and several times maneuvered around her taller opponent to grab rebounds, of which she had 12. Rapp scored only 2 points and those came when Colby was out of the game.
“We definitely worked in practice on me getting in front of (Rapp) and then wrapping around her and staying straight up,” said Colby. “I think tonight was one of my best defensive games. I was excited for the challenge of not letting her score. It was fun.”
“She did a great job on Rapp,” said Smith of Colby. “Six-three is not easy to guard but she got physical with her in the post and didn’t foul.”
Pryor, the steady sophomore, led the Rockets with 19 points. She added 10 rebounds as BC outrebounded the Wave 33-27.
Freshman Madelyn Spagnola added 9 points for St. Edward, which graduates Swanson, Olivia Walschot, Clarissa Ramos and Maria Von Ahnen, but returns a plethora of young talent.
“This team has so much to be proud of,” said Dawson, whose team was 4-25 last season. “Nineteen wins, second in the conference, second at the Lisle tournament ... from where we were last year it’s just been a complete turnaround and it’s all because of our senior leadership. Those four stepped up and I couldn’t be happier with their leadership.”