Stevenson's best is just good enough
Clinching the North Suburban Conference's best record required besting Libertyville's best.
Stevenson's girls did Friday night.
But not before the Patriots survived a torrid start by the host Wildcats. Not before they erased a 7-point deficit with less than two minutes left in the fourth quarter. Not before Libertyville missed two point-blank chance at the end of regulation. And not before the visitors squandered a 5-point advantage in the second overtime.
Not until Ashley Richardson intercepted a long pass at the second-OT buzzer, after Klaire Steffens scored with two seconds left, did Stevenson secure a 59-57 win.
"When you're on the court, you're not trying to think of the time," said Steffens, whose basket in the lane with 14 seconds to go in the fourth tied the score at 45-45 and forced extra time. "You're not trying to think of the score. You're just trying to play the game and not let that pressure get to you, and I think that's what we all did."
The win not only wrapped up the conference title for Stevenson (20-5, 12-1), which played in the NSC championship game the last two years, but it also gave the Patriots' their eighth 20-win season in a row.
"We earned it. That's for sure," said Stevenson coach Ashley Graham, who jokingly was asked by two different referees if she was going to give birth during the game. She's eight weeks from her due date.
Libertyville, which had won 10 of its last 13, fell to 15-11 and 7-6 with its second straight loss by two or fewer points. Caroline Frea led the Wildcats with a game-high 20 points (8-of-11 shooting), Claire Keefe had 17 points, 13 rebounds and 3 blocked shots, and freshman Lydia Crow added 12 points on 4-of-5 shooting from three-point range.
"This was probably our best game of the season, our most-complete game of the season that we played," Libertyville coach Greg Pedersen said. "We handled the ball well in the face of pressure, we shot pretty well, and I thought we defended pretty well against an excellent team."
Steffens (7 rebounds) and Richardson paced Stevenson with 15 points apiece. Madison Wicklund had 14 points and 6 boards, and Kiana Cencula finished with 11 points, including her third 3-pointer and 2 free throws in the second overtime.
Trailing 45-38 late in the fourth, Stevenson put the ball in Richardson's hands and, as she has done numerous times during her four-year varsity career, the point guard delivered. Her three-point play with 1:32 left got the Patriots within four points. She then collected an offensive rebound, scored and was fouled with 21 seconds to go. While she missed the free throw, Steffens got the rebound and scored after a timeout.
In the first OT, Richardson missed an off-balance 3 at the buzzer. She scored 13 points after halftime.
"They got a (star) player (Richardson) who we were just draped all over and she can still score when she needs to, get fouled when she needs to," Pedersen said. "That's hard to stop."
A free throw by Richardson had Stevenson up 57-54 in the second OT, but Crow buried a 3 with 55 seconds left to draw Libertyville even. Crow sank 3 of 3 shots from beyond the arc in helping the Wildcats build a 17-9 lead in the first quarter.
"That freshman," Graham said. "Those are some big-time shots she knocked down."
With time running down and the score tied at 57-57, Richardson set a screen and Isabella Paldrmic fed the ball to Steffens, who drove into the lane under pressure. Steffens muscled up a baby hook that rolled on the rim and fell through. Libertyville immediately called timeout with 2.1 seconds on the clock.
"It wasn't as open as we would have hoped, but I had to work with it," Steffens said. "I knew that we were running out of time, so I just did what I did and it worked out well."
"I knew that they would key on (Richardson)," Graham said. "I kind of used her as a decoy to come off that screen and then re-curl for Klaire. Bottom line is, Klaire made a tough shot."
In the end, Grahman thought her players' collective experience made the difference. All five of her starters have been on varsity since they were freshmen.
"Just kids making big-time plays and staying true to the course," Graham said. "Some things don't go your way in basketball, but our kids are resilient. That was shown tonight."