With Kaneland mounting a furious fourth-quarter charge and his star center on the bench with 4 fouls Thursday night in the Class 3A Kaneland sectional championship game, Stillman Valley coach Bobby Mellon decided to roll the dice.
With the game tied at 40 and all the momentum on Kaneland's side after erasing an 8-point deficit, Mellon put Macy Weaver back in with 5:10 remaining. The gamble couldn't have worked much better as the Cardinals scored 9 straight points.
Kaneland once again surged, getting within 52-49 before a potential tying 3-pointer rimmed off with 16 seconds left. Stillman Valley held on to win 55-51, denying the Knights what would have been their first sectional crown since 1990.
"We really pushed hard back," said Kaneland sophomore Hannah Armin, who scored a team-high 16 points off the bench. "We knew this game was going to be hard but we kept fighting."
Stillman Valley (23-9), one of the smallest Class 3A schools with 587 students, has one of the tallest players in the 6-foot-3 Weaver.
Headed to Arkansas, Weaver was the focus of a box-and-1 by Kaneland (23-7). The Knights held her to 2 first-half points, 1 field goal in the game, and 9 points.
But Weaver still made a big impact with 17 rebounds and 7 blocked shots, which is why Mellon knew he had to get her back on the court.
"She was a rim protector tonight," Mellon said. "When push comes to shove she has to be out on the floor. I told her this is trust, you need to stay on the court as long as possible."
Armin got Kaneland off to a great start. Trailing 11-9, Armin scored 8 points in the final two minutes of the first quarter, including back-to-back 3-pointers.
Jamie Martens capped the quarter with a drive and dish down low to Addie Ringel for a 19-11 lead.
"Hannah came in and hit a couple big shots, gave us some energy, boosted our confidence a little," Kaneland coach Ernie Colombe said. "She's played some big minutes as a sophomore."
As good as Kaneland was in the first quarter, the Knights couldn't get anything going in the second. That 8-point lead quickly disappeared as they made only 1 of 13 field goal attempts and scored 3 points in the quarter to go into halftime tied at 22-22.
"In that first quarter the defensive rotations kind of broke down a little bit," Mellon said. "Loud environment, and us just kind of adjusting. They are a group that settles in."
The lead changed hands five times early in the third quarter. Kaneland went up 25-24 on Jenni Weber's 3 and then 27-26 on a Weber jumper, both on assists from Martens.
Stillman Valley, who outrebounded Kaneland 38-29 and repeatedly hurt the Knights with second-chance points, went on an 8-0 run to grab a 36-28 lead. Armin once again came up with a big shot for Kaneland, a 3 that pulled the Knights within 38-32 going to the fourth.
The Knights kept charging. Martens drove for short jumper, then drove again and drew the fourth foul on Weaver with 6:09 remaining. With Weaver out, Jenni Weber's 3 and a Morgan Weber free throw tied the game.
After Stillman's 9-0 run to lead 49-40 with just two minutes left, Martens and Jenni Weber made 4 straight free throws to make it 49-44. Armin's 3 and a floater from Martens brought Kaneland within 51-49 with 32 seconds left.
The Knights forced a jump ball on their press but possession stayed with Stillman. After a free throw put Stillman up 52-49, Armin couldn't get her 3 to fall, and a Grace Timm free throw sealed the win for the Cardinals, who meet Morton Monday in the Bureau Valley supersectional.
"I saw our pride and passion for the game of basketball," said Morgan Weber, Kaneland's only senior who played Thursday. "Our comeback was good, we just fell short. I'm really proud of this team. They are going to work hard and go far next year too."
Martens added 13 points and 6 assists despite leaving the game briefly in the third quarter after taking a shot to the face. Jenni Weber scored 10 points, and Morgan Weber had 6 points, 7 rebounds and 3 steals.
"We didn't rebound, missed a couple blockouts and they capitalized," Colombe said. "They beat us up more on the boards than we wanted.
"We had 8 sophomores and 1 freshman dressing, hopefully they got a taste of this and want to come back. Going back five or six seasons, hopefully we've built a pretty good program that's sustainable. That's up to the girls. This was a great atmosphere. I hope they want to get back to it."