Crystal Lake Central handles Gators
Crystal Lake Central's Isabelle Szela takes great joy in playing the "chaser" role in the Tigers' press defense.
On Wednesday against crosstown rival Crystal Lake South, the senior had lots of fun using her length and instincts to tip balls to her teammates or trap the opposing ballhandler and rip it away.
Szela was a nightmare on defense against the Gators, scoring 12 points and adding six steals in a 45-32 win for the Tigers at Central Fieldhouse.
Central's pressure defense helped force 26 turnovers, including 16 in the first 16 minutes, as the Tigers (15-9, 7-4 FVC) built a lead as big as 23 points in the third quarter.
Defense has driven the Tigers' offense most of the season, with tips and steals leading to quick points, and Wednesday was a perfect example of why Central can be so frustrating to face when every player is working together.
"An important part of our defense is that we have each other's back every time," Szela said. "If a girl is out of place, we make sure that we're there for her. I play 'chaser,' and I know sometimes I can get a little far out, but I know my girls have my back behind me, so that's why I know I can get a little farther out. That's why we play so well together.
"We're always there for each other."
The Gators (4-17, 2-9) scored the first basket of the game, but Central held them scoreless the rest of the quarter, taking a 15-2 lead into the second quarter. Paige Keller tallied 16 points in the first half on 6-of-10 shooting and finished with a team-best 19 points and four 3s.
Sophomore point guard Katie Hamill finished with 11 points, five steals and four assists, while Olivia Arndt and Courtney Schober added three steals apiece.
Szela has been starting since Katie Svigelj suffered a season-ending knee injury Dec. 15 against Dundee-Crown. Coach Derek Crabill said Szela has really grown and excelled in her role.
"She's really active and long, and I think we can say that about a lot of our players," Crabill said. "We're not necessarily tall, but we're long and that's why we like having her at the top of our ball press because of her ability to change passing angles and get her hands on passes.
"She does a great job for us. Because she changes the passing angle, she might not get credit for a tip or a steal, but she actually causes that to happen on the backside, and that's her job and she does a really good job of it."
South's offense picked up in the second half with junior guard Kree Nunnally scoring 15 of her game-high 21 points after the break, but a 40-21 deficit after three quarters was too much to overcome. Nunnally also had a game-high 16 rebounds, and Hanna Massie added seven points and eight rebounds.
Gators coach Mark Mucha was proud of his team's second-half effort in which South actually outscored Central, 22-16, but the deficit already was too big.
"They're long, they're athletic and they really get in the passing lanes well," Mucha said. "They make us react rather than anticipate. They play at a high speed, a high energy that we don't necessarily replicate every single day in practice. Against good times like Central, you have to start strong. Otherwise, you're constantly trying to come from behind."
Central's next test is Friday at home against FVC co-leader Burlington Central. The Tigers handed the Rockets their one conference loss of the season in a low-scoring game, 34-29, that went to overtime.
The Tigers are looking forward to the opportunity.
"That's going to be exciting," Hamill said. "I'm looking forward to working together as a team and to see how much we improved from the first time we played them. This is probably one of the best teams I've ever been on. I love our connection."