Stevenson on its way to Redbird for 1st time since 2001
Two teams who were the only Illinois state girls basketball champions from 1995 to 1998 treated fans at Robert Morris University on Monday night to a state-caliber matchup in Arlington Heights.
And when it was over, 1995 and 1996 state champion Stevenson pulled out a 36-32 win over 1997 and 1998 state champ Loyola at the Class 4A Hersey supersectional.
The Patriots (34-2) will face Benet (29-3) in Friday's 2:30 p.m. state semifinal at Illinois State's Redbird Arena.
"It was such a well-played high school basketball game," said Stevenson coach Ashley Graham. "But credit our kids with sticking with our defensive game plan and we did just enough offensively.
"It was two storied programs (Stevenson has 878 wins in program history and Loyola 673) with a lot of history between them. We're just happy we had the opportunity. We tell our kids all the time when you get that opportunity, just seize it."
Patriots sophomore forward Emory Klatt certainly seized the moment, producing one of her finest performances with 13 points and nearly 20 rebounds. Simone Sawyer added 12 points and Ava Bardic added 7.
"Emory is averaging a double-double," Graham said. "I can't say enough about her ceiling. Her production right now is just off the charts. I would say right now she is the best rebounder in Illinois. She is just so athletic."
Klatt's rebound layup gave Stevenson a quick 2-0 lead.
"I never in a million years would imagine this (going downstate) would happen my sophomore year," Klatt said. "For this to happen is unbelievable. It's crazy"
Loyola (31-4) charged back for a 9-4 lead, capped by a fastbreak layup by sophomore Paige Engels and a driving bank shot by Nora Stanton with 3:11 left in the first quarter.
A free throw by Engels made it 10-4 before Bardic's 3-pointer got Stevenson to within 10-7 after the first period.
"I was never fully confident we were going to win that game, " Bardic said. "Loyola is a great team. They beat us earlier (56-50 on Nov. 22) and they're really well coached. But we came out with the win. We came out full of energy. We wanted to win that game more than any game we've ever played and that really made the difference."
The Ramblers surged ahead 14-8 in the second quarter on back-to-back driving layups by Engels, the second one just before the mask timeout. Loyola led 16-10 when Angelina Giordano swept to the basket for a layup with 1:27 left in the half,
But the Patriots got back to within 16-14 at intermission, thanks to a free throw by Sawyer and a 3-point play by Klatt.
Neither team led by more than 3 points in the third quarter in which Stevenson finished in front 27-26, thanks to Sawyer's 3-pointer from the top of the key just before the buzzer.
Sawyer then grabbed a rebound to start the final quarter and went coast to coast for a layup and 29-26 lead.
The Pats held the Ramblers scoreless for the first 5:07 of the period. A 3-pointer by Giordano (11 points, 3 3-pointers) with 2:25 left got Loyola to within 31-29. But Bardic scored the Pats' final 4 points from the free-throw line in the game's final 39 seconds to give Stevenson its first trip to the state finals since 2001.
"I think taking a loss to Nazareth (three weeks ago just before the state tourney) motivated us to play even better in the tournament. We became more focused on the ending goal and we weren't overconfident," Bardic said.
"In this moment, it's really hard to put into words," said Graham, who is 162-47 in her six years at Stevenson. That (Loyola) is a great basketball team we just played. And man, did our kids commit on the defensive end of the floor."
Engels led Loyola with 13 points.
"We always say any time we hold under 40, we're going to win," said Loyola coach Jeremy Schoenecker (318-114 in 14 seasons) who had his winningest season. "That was not the case tonight. They're (Stevenson) a really good basketball team.
"I thought we did a great job defensively. Offensively, we just needed to be more assertive and get some shots."
Klatt was as assertive as they come on the boards.
"Actually my dad (Eric) and I go into the garage almost every morning at 6:30 before school and we just work around the punching bag," Klatt said. "We just really emphasize how to get around people by getting around the punching bag to get those rebounds."
Klatt sure helped Stevenson punch its ticket to Normal.