Batavia girls basketball team advances, St. Charles East edged

BATAVIA – St. Charles East delivered a promising start to the nightcap of Tuesday’s Class 4A Batavia Regional girls basketball doubleheader.

Then it fizzled. Slowly.

Although the Saints re-established momentum at times, Willowbrook too often provided answers in a 58-56 win.

“First quarter, we came out strong, but the rest of the game, we needed to pick it up,” East junior wing Kyra Washington said. “We did a little bit, but it wasn’t enough.”

Willowbrook (23-4) advanced to Thursday’s regional final against host Batavia. The Bulldogs shot 28 of 48 from the field to roll past Elk Grove, 68-51, in Tuesday’s first game.

East (13-14) initially had a pulse on a comfort zone of its own on the heels of a 13-point loss to the Warriors in late December. The Saints grabbed a 17-8 lead on Katie Claussner’s 3-point play with 1:26 remaining in the first quarter, but endured a cold spell after that, scoring just eight more points before halftime.

Claussner (20 points), Washington (13) and senior post Hannah Nowling (12) offered sound options in what was a possession-for-possession game down the stretch. But Warriors sophomore post Josie Zabran, a midseason call-up, was dialed in, too.

Zabran scored 15 of her game-high 21 points after halftime, providing an effective complement to the outside game of Olivia Domin (17 points).

“It was how persistent we were,” Zabran said. “We kept working it in there and taking it to the basket.”

Willowbrook went just 12 for 27 from the free-throw line, helping the Saints hang around. Claussner’s potential tying jumper from the left baseline in the closing seconds was no good.

Washington recently referred to the Saints as “mildly scrappy,” and suggested an increased penchant for grabbing loose balls and offensive rebounds would ramp up the rating.

Both categories received a boost in the weeks since Willowbrook topped East in Wheaton North holiday tournament play. Nowling took an increased leadership role in the frontcourt in midseason, and had been flanked by stable play from Chloe John.

On this night, Zabran’s own increased contributions added up more.

“We just didn’t have an answer for [Zabran],” Saints coach Lori Drumtra said. “She dominated the paint.”

Batavia (19-9) raced to a 41-21 halftime lead in the opening semifinal, capitalizing on consistent pressure defense and remarkable success from distance.

Senior guard Liza Fruendt went 5 for 7 from 3-point range in the first half to pace a 7 for 9 effort that included a trey from senior post Erin Bayram. Crisp ball movement and comfortable spacing – perhaps the Grenadiers (9-19) hadn’t heard of Fruendt’s 51-point outburst earlier this season – proved crucial.

No box-and-one or gimmick defenses were in sight, the norm for many Upstate Eight Conference River Division foes on the second rotation through the league – including East in its Feb. 1 upset of Batavia.

“The past couple weeks have been pretty intense, you know. It’s starting to pick up,” Fruendt said. “So it was just nice to be able to have, like, maybe two or three inches of separation. Once I can get that, usually I can find my shot pretty easily.”

Fruendt (34 points) and Bayram (13) finished in double figures. The four-year players and longtime friends earned their first postseason victory together. It also marked the first postseason win for Bulldogs coach Kevin Jensen.

Now Batavia will play for its first regional title since 1990.

The final 3 of the first half, from reserve Jessica Koch in the closing seconds, sent Batavia’s student section into one of its louder frenzies.

The crowd included a number of players form Batavia’s 6A state champion football team. Fruendt and Bayram played integral roles in organizing student fan activities during the playoff run.

“We just like to support each other,” Fruendt said, “and Thursday night should be a lot of fun.”