NAPERVILLE – Neuqua Valley girls basketball coach Mike Williams retrieved a crutch from a hobbled fan late in Friday’s game against Geneva.
His intent was to help free a ball stuck between the backboard and the side of the rim.
As referees waved off the gesture moments later at the sight of a quicker solution, the full-circle symbolism had been etched. Play resumed, and Geneva capped a 54-46 victory in the Upstate Eight Conference championship crossover, coming unshackled just more than two months after the Wildcats blew them out.
In late November, these same teams met in Geneva, with the Vikings two days removed from losing point guard Michaela Loebel to a season-ending ACL injury and also without standout center Sami Pawlak.
“At the beginning of the season, we were an entirely different team from when we played them,” Vikings senior forward Kelly Gordon said. “We were still shell-shocked from Michaela, but tonight we knew we had to come back with composure and fight ’til the end.”
UEC River champion Geneva (17-10) flipped the script against its Valley counterpart largely by following the same protocol it has since a 45-22 loss to the Wildcats (24-3).
Stay patient. Talk. Maybe even slow it down.
After committing an early barrage of turnovers that fed the Wildcats’ attack, Geneva adjusted after halftime and turned a two-point deficit at the break into a six-point edge entering the final quarter.
Junior guard Morgan Seberger, who paced the Vikings with 13 points, swished what coach Sarah Meadows called two “absolutely huge” 3-pointers in the first 30-plus seconds of the third quarter. The only times Geneva looked back after seizing a 28-24 lead were when Meadows barked instructions during stoppages in play.
“This was a huge confidence boost going into the playoffs next week,” said Geneva junior Sidney Santos, who grabbed nine rebounds in the team’s fifth straight victory. “We wanted to take control, and after getting that first half out of our system, we did.”
Santos and the Vikings essentially played a completely different style than in the teams’ first meeting. Santos served as primary ballhandler – as she has since early December – while fellow 6-footer Abby Novak often defended the Wildcats’ backcourt. That combination, along with steady play from Pawlak, helped Geneva finish 10-2 in the River and win its final seven league games.
Although Valley Player of the Year Allison Hedrick dented Geneva for 15 points and eight rebounds, the Vikings’ commitment and discipline in their 2-3 zone kept any of her teammates from breaking through.
Neuqua Valley, which shot 1 for 19 from long range, finished 5 for 17 from the foul line compared to Geneva’s 20 of 27 effort.
Geneva’s ability to locate and impede the Wildcats’ motion offense after the break was also key.
“Just basically communicating with each other,” Gordon said. “We were talking a lot more, being aware of where the cutters were, letting each other know that they were coming and bumping the cutters.”
In her first action since tweaking her ankle about a week ago, Gordon had 11 points. Pawlak (10 points, nine rebounds) also scored in double figures for the Vikings.
“Hey, they’re a good team. We’re going to be fine. It’s not the end of the world right now,” Williams said.
Sounds like a credo the Vikings adopted not too long ago.