Two big story lines came out of Neuqua Valley's 54-37 victory over Benet in the first semifinal Monday at the Joliet Central girls basketball sectional.
The first was the Wildcats (27-5), the sectional's top seed, advanced to Thursday's sectional final against third-seeded Oswego. The Panthers beat Metea Valley 47-42 to advance.
The second involved the retirement of Redwings coach Peter Paul as coach after 28 years at the helm following the Benet loss.
As for Neuqua, the team got off to a huge start that was difficult for Benet (21-9) to overcome. The Wildcats hit net on their first four shots of the game and completely dominated the first eight minutes. The team led by as much as 13 when Maya Starks hit two late free throws to put the Wildcats up 18-5. A 3-pointer by Benet's Emily Schramek, who scored a team-high 12 points, closed out the quarter, pulling the Redwings to within 10.
"We found a way to get started early and that's what we have been working on," said Neuqua coach Mike Williams. "We haven't played our best basketball yet, but we're awfully close."
Benet is a skilled 3-point shooting team and the Wildcats' Najee Smith said keeping the Redwings in check as far as 3s was crucial. Benet hit for just 5 on Monday, spread out throughout the game.
"Benet is capable of shooting 3s in a row. Our goal was to shut down the 3-point arc and we did a great job," said Smith, who finished with 10 points.
Morgan Thomalla's 2-pointer pulled her team to within 7 to start the second quarter, and a couple of minutes later Benet cut the lead to 20-13.
However, Neuqua finished the first half on an 11-4 run to lead 31-17 at halftime. The offense for either team slowed to a crawl in the third quarter as the squads combined for a 4-of-23 shooting performance from the field with the Redwings outscoring the Wildcats 6-4. But Neuqua remained in the lead, 35-23, at the end of 24 minutes.
After the rough first quarter Benet fought hard the rest of the way but couldn't get its deficit down to single digits. The Redwings pulled to within 11 twice in the final quarter, including with just less than six minutes left in the game thanks to a well-timed pass from Emily Eshoo, who finished with 9 points, to freshman Katie Jaseckas, a late-season callup, for a layup. Jaseckas finished with 9 rebounds.
As for Paul after the game, he talked of both the present and the future for Benet.
"We have nothing to be ashamed of. We were 10-6 at one point this season. No one expected us to be here," he said. "Give Neuqua credit. They shot pretty well and made their free throws. We struggled all the way through."
This season's Benet roster had just three seniors on it.
"Everyone is coming back. The future really looks great. This is not about the end of an era, but an excellent future for Benet," Paul said.
Kai Moon led Neuqua with 15 points, including 10 of 14 free throws. Niki Lazar put through 11 points. She and Bryce Menendez each had 9 rebounds.
"We're excited (about Thursday)," Smith said, "but it's one step at a time."