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Oswego’s 3-point shots were falling late and Neuqua Valley couldn’t get enough free throws to fall, so the Wildcats really needed a stop.
Fortunately for the top-seeded Wildcats, Niki Lazar and Bryce Menendez were there to deliver one final stop to hold off No. 3-seeded Oswego 54-52 in the championship game of the Class 4A Joliet Central sectional Thursday night.
Neuqua Valley (28-5) built a 50-38 lead midway through the fourth quarter by opening the quarter on an 8-0 run. But the Panthers had three players knock down 3-pointers down the stretch and found themselves trailing just 54-52 after Neuqua Valley missed two free throws with 8.5 seconds left.
Rather than call a timeout, Panthers coach Chad Pohlmann let his hot team grab the rebound and race up the court. But Amri Wilder, who had two clutch 3s late in the game, found herself trapped near the sideline by Lazar and Menendez as time wound down and had the ball tipped away before any chance at a game-winning 3-pointer.
“I wasn’t sure. I thought they might call a timeout,” said Lazar, who led a balanced attack with 13 points. “I just knew that (Wilder) had just made some big shots and she wanted to take the final shot. So I got on her and when Bryce tipped it away I just started screaming cause I knew we won. I was so happy.”
It’s the first sectional championship for Lazar and a number of other Wildcats seniors who had come up short last year in a sectional final. With the win they earned a shot at powerful Whitney Young at Monday’s Hinsdale Central supersectional.
Lazar, who missed a pair of free throws late on Monday, joked about her team’s 16-for-27 effort from the line on Thursday.
“Oh my gosh, free throws will be the death of me. The death of me,” she said. “Last year we lost in the this game and we’ve been taking it one game at a time, but our goal was this game.”
With Lazar hitting a pair of 3s and scoring 8 points early, the Wildcats took a 17-11 lead after one quarter and led 31-25 at the half. But Oswego (24-8) hung tough and trailed just 42-38 after three quarters before a slow start to the final quarter put them in a big hole.
But Siarra O’Neill and Wilder combined for five 3-pointers in the game — four of which came in the second half — and a long-range shot by Erin Sinnott with 15 seconds left to play made it a 54-52 game and gave the Panthers plenty of hope.
But Menendez, who finished with 9 points, 6 rebounds and 3 blocked shots, helped secure the Wildcats’ win at the buzzer.
“We knew we needed a stop. We had to stop that,” the 6-foot-2 center said. “And whatever that means, whatever we have to do that, we did. That was pretty awesome.”
Neuqua Valley coach Mike Williams knows his team will have its hands full on Monday night with Whitney Young, but he was all smiles after surviving the Panthers late push.
“We’ll take it. I thought Oswego played their best game of the season tonight without a doubt,” Williams said.
“I thought they came in extremely focused. We got off to a good start. It’s a heavyweight fight. They hit us and we hit them.”
After a pair of free throws by Kai Moon and Najee Smith’s short jumper gave the Wildcats that 50-38 lead two minutes into the fourth quarter, Oswego called a timeout but still did not score for another two minutes before making the late surge.
“We could have sealed it earlier but we didn’t,” Williams added, referring to his team’s eight missed foul shots in the fourth quarter. “They made shots ... it was a great game. You couldn’t ask for a better sectional final. Hopefully, it’s this close on Monday night.”