Neuqua Valley shocks Naperville Central
Don't stop believing.
That was the motto from the Neuqua Valley girls basketball staff as the Wildcats entered the postseason with a very uncharacteristic 10-game losing streak.
But as the 14th-seeded Wildcats prepared to take on No. 4 Naperville Central in Monday's Class 4A Oswego regional semifinal, it became apparent that belief was indeed growing. Coach Mike Williams spent endless hours breaking down game film, and a Neuqua Valley squad that suffered injuries and illness while stumbling to a 10-20 mark in the regular season kept the faith.
The result was a stunning 64-61 win over a Redhawks team that had beaten Neuqua Valley twice in the regular season. Center Claudia Gallegos was in foul trouble almost from the get-go, picking up three whistles in the first quarter and a fourth midway through the second, yet she managed to score a game-high 23 points with 13 rebounds and a pair of blocked shots.
The team's resurgence saw the underdogs build a 53-39 lead following a basket inside by Gallegos, only to have the relentless Redhawks storm all the way back for a 59-58 lead on a long 3-pointer from Gabi Melby with 1:01 left to play.
But instead of crumbling under the intense pressure, the Wildcats kept on believing. They pulled out the thriller after Gallegos and Ellie Wisner combined to drop in five free throws in the final minute and Melby, a unanimous all-DuPage Valley Conference performer for the Redhawks, fouled out late.
"That was like the best game we played all year," said Gallegos, who scored 18 points in the second half. "Coach Williams watched a bunch of film. He watched like 40 hours of film ... he had us prepared for everything."
During the 10-game skid the Wildcats had Jada Devine miss time with an ankle and then both Devine and Wisner were out with the flu recently. Monday night they were ready to throw their best at a Naperville Central team that entered play 20-10. One of Neuqua's best games during the losing streak was a tight loss to the Redhawks, so neither team was too surprised that Monday's playoff game was tight.
"Our preparation ... we've been preparing for this game the last three days, just going really hard in the gym," Gallegos added. "Our last game with them we were really close and we knew that game wasn't our best. So we knew if we came out strong with our best (tonight) we'd be all right."
Wisner connected on a trio of 3s in the first half and then tallied nine more points in the second half for a total of 18. The Wildcats led 29-25 at the half after Jessica Sun nailed a 3-pointer in the final seconds and Devine tallied 12 of her 14 points before the break.
"Losses, we don't really focus on them," Wisner said when asked how she and her teammates kept believing they could snap their losing streak in the regional. "We just focus on getting better each game and tonight we played great. I'm so proud of my team.
"That was crazy. That was a lot of fun," she added. "A lot of it was coaching. He knew a lot of their plays and we went through what he told us prior to the game and in the couple practices before this game. We prepared a lot and it showed tonight."
For the Redhawks, who turned in a solid 12-4 second half to the season, the setback was tough. The team hoped to be playing Wednesday for a regional crown against Oswego. But coach Andy Nussbaum said his players were not looking ahead.
"We were totally focused on Neuqua. We didn't think about tomorrow," he said. "There's no issue of we were looking past them. We were not looking past them. They got our best and they earned the win."
Melby finished with 19 points, Sara Opalka had 15 points off the bench and Lauren Umbright capped off her strong senior season with 8 points, 5 rebounds and 2 steals for Naperville Central.
"Our kids are great," Nussbaum said. "This was a great team. I'm more disappointed that we're not practicing tomorrow than that we lost."
Williams was most proud that his players kept the faith despite the rough last couple of weeks.
"There have so many things. Trying to find the right pieces, injuries, people sick, you just try and deal with it and adjust," Williams said. "They were focused and I asked them to believe. We had a scout team come in and they did a great job ... our kids were focused. And you know what, they're a great ball team, Central's a great ball team. We knew they'd have runs. We just survived."