Libertyville's approach does in Stevenson in NSC tourney finale
En garde, Stevenson.
That wasn't Libertyville's warning to Stevenson before the start of the North Suburban Conference girls basketball tournament final on Saturday afternoon.
But it could've been, had fencing jackets been available.
The top-seeded Wildcats sheathed their epees and went with an English alert instead: "Five guards, Stevenson." Host Libertyville deployed nothing but guards -- four seniors and a sophomore -- as starters and relied on their talent and guile to down Stevenson 52-46 in the final game of the season for both squads.
"Our guards did a good job of commanding the movement of the ball," said Libertyville coach Greg Pedersen, whose hoopsters maintained possessions for long stretches in the fourth quarter to parry the Patriots' attempts to regain a lead they hadn't held since midway through the second frame.
"Our challenge at the end of the game was, 'Come out and get us.' "
Libertyville (16-2) led 45-33 at the 6:01 mark of the fourth quarter, thanks to senior guard Morgan Spaulding's fifth and final 3-pointer of the game. Second-seeded Stevenson (16-2), which split its two meetings with three-time reigning NSC champion Libertyville this season, cut the Wildcats' advantage to 47-44 on a trey by junior guard Ava Bardic (team-high 16 points, 5 rebounds) at 1:15.
Libertyville then played an effective game of keep away from there, netting 5 free throws and limiting the Pats to a bucket by Bardic.
The 5-foot-10 Spaulding capped the day's scoring with a freebie and matched her career high with a 20-point effort. She struck for 7 of her team's 11 points in the second quarter.
The eventual victors secured their first lead of the game on a basket from senior guard Lauren Huber (13 points, 13 rebounds), giving the Wildcats a 23-22 edge two-plus minutes before halftime.
"Morgan Spaulding," Pedersen said, "is our most improved player. I think she's the most improved player in Lake County. She's a great shooter, really long and an aggressive defender."
Libertyville's youngest starter, 6-0 sophomore guard Emily Fisher, had another impactful performance, finishing with 13 points and pulling down 11 rebounds. She appeared to have suffered a back injury in the first minute of the third quarter but returned to the court nearly two minutes later.
"These girls, my teammates, it was so easy to compete with them," said Spaulding, who, with classmates Huber, Marianna Morrissey and Annalese Chudy, went 80-29 as varsity members. "Everybody knew what the others could do well, which made us a strong team.
"I was super excited when I found out there'd be a season this year; we all were. That was tough for all us, not knowing for the longest time."
Only four Patriots scored Saturday afternoon, but the foursome fell only 1 point shy of emerging as a quartet of double-figure scorers. Junior guard Simone Sawyer (11 points) and senior guard Nikki Ware (10) joined Bardic in achieving the feat, and senior guard Lydia Lueck contributed 9 points -- all from 3-point hardwood.
"Our players battled their hearts out," Patriots coach Ashley Graham said. "We had some miscues, and Libertyville took advantage of them. Libertyville attacks you. Libertyville has five starters that can hurt you."
The 5-8 Bardic kept the visitors in it until the end, tossing in 9 of her team's 16 points in the final quarter and authoring all of Stevenson's points in a 7-1 stretch that spanned 2:02.
"Ava is fearless," Graham said. "She wants to be coached. You can challenge her, or get on her, or love her. And you know what? She's always the same."