Girls basketball: Freshman LaFleur comes up big in Burlington Central's season-opening win
Burlington Central freshman Audrey LaFleur had a varsity debut she'll never forget Monday.
LaFleur, a 5-foot-7 guard, came off the bench near the end of the first quarter against Belvidere North and immediately gave the Rockets a lift with her quick hands and defense.
With 50 seconds remaining, after the Blue Thunder rallied to tie the game after trailing by 16 points in the second half, the confident freshman showed no hesitation in shooting and knocking in a corner 3-pointer.
Central's defense held tough the rest of the way, and the Rockets secured a 43-41 victory over North in their opening game at Central's Mark Einwich Tournament.
LaFleur had the typical nerves associated with anyone playing in their first varsity game, but first-year coach Mike Carani kept reminding her that she belonged.
"I wouldn't put her out there if I didn't trust her," Carani said. "She really proved herself over the summer, in the fall and these first two weeks. I know she was really nervous about tonight, which just means that she cares.
"I told her, 'I'm not going to put you out there, I'm not going to put you in that situation if I don't trust you,' and she proved me right tonight. She fits in great with the team and she works hard. She gives us a spark and that big boost of energy."
LaFleur finished with a team-high 10 points and chipped in five steals in the victory.
"It feels good, I was really scared before the game," LaFleur said. "But after I started making some shots, it got much better. I feel like we had a lot of good extra passes tonight. The (team) has been super nice to me."
Senior forward Emma Payton made the assist on LaFleur's go-ahead shot and had a strong all-around game with nine points, six assists, 10 rebounds and three blocks. Payton was proud of LaFleur for stepping up in a key moment.
"I knew she had a little bit of nerves before her first game," Payton said. "I drive her to school every day, and I know that she is an important part of our team this year. Having her hit that and show the confidence she did was really huge for us."
North trailed Central 34-18 toward the end of the third quarter, but kept chipping away at the Rockets' lead. Samantha Adams (nine points) sank a game-tying 3-pointer with 1:15 left during a 21-5 run for the Thunder as North outscored Central 30-16 in the second half and 18-8 in the fourth quarter.
North was led by Brooke Bottcher with 12 points and Cortlyn Hefty with 11, including eight in the final eight minutes.
Carani felt his team didn't handle the pressure of North in the second half.
"They just started jumping into the passing lanes and denying a little bit more," Carani said. "We were trying to get into those gaps, but a lot of time our girls were waiting for the ball to come to them. That gave (North) to the opportunity to jump those passes."
Kenzie Andersen and Emersyn Fry both had eight points for Central, and Ashley Waslo had six off the bench.
Payton was happy to get the win.
"I think we kind of underestimated (North) after the first half," Payton said. "We were getting stressed out by their defense because it really came out of nowhere. It was coach Carani's first game, too, so we didn't want to let him down.
"I think it's the first of many (wins) this season. I think we're going to have good season."