Bella Mullaney provides important leadership as a starter and one of two seniors for the Wheaton North girls basketball team.
On Thursday, Mullaney helped the Falcons come through at the start of the fourth quarter in their showdown with Naperville Central for the early lead in the DuPage Valley Conference.
The Falcons prevailed 65-51 as Mullaney scored 6 of her 12 points in the period -- after entering with four fouls.
"The best basketball is played when you're not thinking about it. I was aware (of my fouls) but you've still got to play aggressive," said Mullaney, who fouled out with 3:38 left.
"We started to mesh as a team. Free throws really kept us in the game. We just really stepped it up and wanted it more."
Wheaton North (14-3, 6-0), which won its 11th straight, entered the fourth quarter trailing 37-36 -- the first lead for Naperville Central (14-6, 5-1) since the first quarter and its 7-2 start.
Junior Hannah Swider and Mullaney each had two baskets and two free throws and junior Matti Zander had a scoop layup for a 14-4 run and 50-41 lead with 4:32 left.
The Falcons hung on by hitting 15 of 16 free throws in the fourth quarter -- completing a remarkable 30 for 33 from the line.
"In the fourth quarter we started to play a little bit. Bella hit some big shots and everyone just loosened up a little bit," Wheaton North coach Dave Eaton said. "We played a little nervous tonight. You've got two really good teams and we're still young. I was really proud of our team down the stretch."
Swider had 19 points and sophomore Nikki Baird added 12 with two 3-pointers.
Naperville Central junior Mia Lakstigala had 25 points -- 18 in the second half -- sophomore Lucy Schmid had 12 points and 12 rebounds and senior Erin Moran had 9 points.
With Lakstigala on the bench in the second quarter with three fouls, Schmid had 6 points to help cut the halftime deficit to 24-22. The Redhawks trailed 34-26 in the third quarter but dominated the next five minutes, limiting the Falcons to a Swider basket with 9 turnovers.
In the fourth quarter the Falcons countered the Redhawks' 1-3-1 zone variation defense with a chaser on Swider as Mullaney shot and attacked along the lane.
"The first three minutes of the fourth quarter really dictated who won the game," Naperville Central coach Andy Nussbaum said. "That (free-throw shooting) was unbelievable. They shot the ball well. They deserve to win."
The Falcons had one fewer field goal but one more 3-pointer. At the line Baird was 9 for 9, Swider 8 for 9 and Sarah Topps 6 for 6. Naperville Central was 11 for 20 from the line.
"This team has an amazing work ethic. Everyone made their free throws and it's just really a testament to our hard work," Baird said.
The Falcons continued the momentum from capturing their Falcon Classic for the first time since 1990, winning the last three games by a combined 6 points with three overtimes.
"We were on the bench and we said, 'We were here before.' We were relaxed. We knew what we needed to do," Swider said. "(Eaton) was constantly telling us we need defensive stops. We can't do anything on offense without the ball."
Nussbaum said the game had a similar feel to the Redhawks' 62-47 loss to Maine West on Dec. 29 for the Dundee-Crown Charger Classic title.
"We were down 4 to start the fourth quarter -- this time we're ahead -- and then all of a sudden we're down 10," Nussbaum said.