Round Lake notches breakthrough win over Grayslake Central
Grayslake Central's recent run of success includes five straight Northern Lake Country Conference championships in girls basketball.
The Rams, under the direction of Steve Ikenn, have dominated the conference over the last six seasons, posting a 46-1 record which includes a 45-game winning streak. The impressive streak was snapped this season, signaling a chance for another team to make a run at the title.
Enter unheralded Round Lake.
The Panthers, coached by Molly Hennig, have been a punching bag of sorts during the Rams' streak, losing at least 11 straight in the series dating back to the 2016-17 season.
After years of losing, the Panthers are having a breakout season -- the program's best since 2008-09 when they posted a 24-5 record, according to Hennig.
Thursday's home game against Grayslake Central represented a coming-out party for the Panthers (16-3, 6-1).
Led by a strong showing from seniors Taylor Major and Amari Cole, the Panthers exorcised some demons with a 45-38 win over the Rams in Round Lake. Majors, a four-year starter at point guard, scored a game-high 24 points to go with 10 rebounds and 3 steals.
Cole, a center, chipped in with 16 points, scoring 8 of her points in the final 2-plus minutes to secure the program-building win.
"I've never beaten them," Majors said. "This feels like a dream. I'm still in shock, like 'Wow" because I've been playing them for four years and we finally did it. That team is phenomenal, so I feel really good about taking this win."
Cole added: "We've come close to beating them a couple of times, but over the years, we've been the underdog and today we showed what team we are. This was a big win. We had past teammates in the crowd. It was a big accomplishment. I had to buckle down at the end and being a senior and help the team get the win. It's been a long time coming."
In front of a large and spirited home crowd, the Panthers weathered a few rough patches to pull out the victory to keep their magical season on track.
"This is probably our biggest crowd, especially with a lot of our alumni here," Hennig said. "It was nice to have a lot of alumni come back and support them with Taylor and Amari being on varsity all four years. They've been along for a lot of that ride. Grayslake Central has always been on the top, so to beat them means a lot. They're such a well-coached team and very disciplined. It means a lot to come out and beat them."
The Rams (5-15, 5-2) struggled from the opening tip, not scoring until Monica Schleg's 3-pointer at the 4:14 mark of the first quarter. The Rams picked a bad night to make miscue after miscue, shooting 1-for-13 from the field, missing all 6 free throws and committing 8 turnovers but still managed to just trail 6-3 after the first quarter.
Even so, the Rams managed to overcome a dismal first half -- 20 missed shots -- due in part thanks to Round Lake's own issues finding the bottom of the basket and turning the ball over. Freshman forward Madison Hoffman drained a rainbow 3-pointer from the corner at the halftime buzzer to cut the deficit to 16-13.
But the Rams' hopes for a quality road win were deflated early in the third quarter, when Major went to work to ensure that the Rams wouldn't spoil the party for Round Lake. She scored 7 third-quarter points to help extend the lead to 28-20, and Cole tallied 10 in the fourth quarter.
"We played well at the start of the game," Major said. "I've always had the confidence to beat any team we play. My teammates stepped up and played well. We've been working hard."
Schleg led the Rams with 11 points, while Piper Gallaher added 8 points and 6 rebounds. Hoffman chipped in with 8 points and 7 rebounds in the loss.