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Defense carries St. Charles East girls basketball past Conant, into sectional final

St. Charles East’s Samantha Munroe dribbles past Conant’s Nireet Dhillon during Monday’s IHSA Class 4A Geneva Sectional semifinal.
St. Charles East’s Samantha Munroe dribbles past Conant’s Nireet Dhillon during Monday’s IHSA Class 4A Geneva Sectional semifinal.

GENEVA – St. Charles East girls basketball players internalized a defense-first credo once more during Monday’s Class 4A Geneva Sectional semifinal against top-seeded Conant.

Apparently, the mindset lingered several minutes after the Saints earned a 62-47 victory.

Ushered into the Geneva faculty lounge per new postgame protocol, East seniors Katie Claussner and Kyra Washington bypassed complementary cookies to discuss the effort that boosted the team to an 11th straight win.

“It’s actually amazing. I mean, just to be able to make it this far, when last year, unfortunately, it ended in the first [postseason] game,” Claussner said. “So just to keep winning like this and playing amazing basketball, beating teams that beat us before. You know, we could possibly be playing Geneva Thursday, and we know we can beat them. So, I mean, it’s a great feeling.”

East (22-7) avenged its most recent defeat, a 70-64 nonconference home loss to Conant on Jan. 20.

The Saints advanced to Thursday’s sectional final against the winner of tonight’s game between Geneva and Bartlett. It’s East’s first time in this round since 2005, when veteran coach Lori Drumtra was an assistant to Steve Schreiner.

Glancing at Claussner and Washington, longtime friends and college recruits, Drumtra noted the point guard-wing duo was “just little bitty kids back then.” Moments later, Claussner spoke of the newfound vibe that experienced some of its origins in these very Geneva halls.

Among the Saints’ wins during their run was a key road victory against the Vikings in the Mack Olson gym, Geneva’s lone Upstate Eight Conference River Division loss. East started the streak with a conference crossover win against Bartlett, with defense again taking center stage.

“It’s nice to know that you have that other gear that you can switch into and play,” Drumtra said.

On Monday, East discovered it after halftime behind a handful of defensive adjustments, most notably switching the 6-foot Washington to guard hot-shooting Cougars sophomore guard Jorie Wachal.

Conant (23-6) grabbed a 31-28 halftime lead behind 19 points from Wachal, prompting Drumtra to change a few assignments in the Saints’ man-to-man scheme. Sophomore Samantha Munroe shadowed point guard Nireet Dhillon, a breakout player in the regular season meeting, while Hannah Vitkus defended offensive catalyst Katie Lomas.

Wachal, meantime, scored just two free throws after the half.

“Second half, I just tried to stay in front of her, get through all the screens and every time she got the ball, I just got low on defense,” Washington said. “And she really didn’t do much.”

Neither did Conant, which shot just better than 20 percent from the field after the break and did not register a fourth-quarter field goal until 1:44 remained, a Lomas bucket that cut East’s lead to 58-45.

Claussner, whose career-best 30 points kept East afloat in the regular season game against the Cougars, led the Saints with 21 points.

East excelled from long range in the first half, shooting 56 percent thanks to clean looks and effective ball movement.

Washington sparked the effort with a 4 for 5 showing and seemingly held the trump card whenever the Cougars threatened to embark on a long run.

In the second half, East attempted just three 3s, as defense created offense in transition. Claussner, who Conant coach Deirdre Naughton dubbed “the best point guard we’ve played all year” thanks to her mix of speed and control, sparked the charge to eliminate the Cougars’ own running game.

Washington (20) and freshman Sara Rosenfeldt (13) also finished in double figures for the Saints, who remain giddy about the chance to give the program its best state series run in 10 seasons. Cookie or not.

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