POLO – Lea Koning had a premonition that would warm the crustiest sports writer's heart Monday night at Polo High School.
The moment before she released a 3-pointer from the top of the key, a thought raced through the Ashton-Franklin Center senior's mind. Or so she says.
"Everybody's gonna cheer if this goes in," Koning said. "It's gonna be in the paper."
Release. Rotation. Splash. Publication. Her two 3s in the last minute of the first half broke a tie with fourth-seeded Milledgeville and spurred the fifth-seeded Raiders' 55-44 victory in a Class 1A regional quarterfinal.
The first came right at the 1-minute mark, giving the Raiders (11-15) a 32-29 lead. The latter came off an inbounds with 2.7 seconds left and narrowly beat the buzzer.
"To get into the locker room with some momentum was just what we needed," AFC coach Chris Jahn said.
The NUIC East rivals split the regular-season series, the Missiles winning big 55-31 at home Dec. 7, and the Raiders striking back in Ashton 49-39 on Jan. 26.
On Monday, the Missiles (5-22) gave away the last opportunity of the first half with their 24th turnover of the first half. They'd commit 44 in the game, matching their point total.
"We kind of had some silly turnovers that hurt us," Milledgeville coach John Nesemeier said.
Attesting to that is the fact that AFC only had 20 steals. Ten of them belonged to Sarah Matson.
"Turnovers change the momentum," Matson said. "It helps when you're able to get the ball back and put another score on the board."
She achieved a double-double when she hit two free throws with 5:35 left in the game. They gave the Raiders a 49-37 lead, their biggest up to that point.
Back-to-back runouts by Kailee Forbes (8 points off the bench) and Morgan Adolph (19 points, 7 rebounds) got the deficit back to single digits at 50-41 and showed the Missiles weren't about to quit.
"I'm very proud of everybody's heart and hustle all season," said Milledgeville senior Carli Hunter, who stuffed the stat sheet with six points, seven rebounds, four steals and four assists. "We didn't have a as many wins as we'd like, but there wasn't one game that we didn't try our hardest.
"I'm not OK with leaving the court knowing I didn't play my hardest."
Alisyn Essex got the Raiders rolling with 16 of her game-high 21 points in the first half. She hit three 3s and a deuce, and AFC led 16-10 after one. The upstart sophomore also grabbed eight rebounds and four steals.
Back-to-back 3s by Hunter and Adolph midway through the second gave the Missiles a 22-19 lead, their first since Adolph buried a 3 to open the scoring. But her traveling violation with 2.7 seconds left in the first half was one of 18 the Missiles committed on the wrong side of the timeline.
AFC's press was tenacious, but Hunter admitted her team's inability to take care of the ball was unfortunately characteristic.
"It was a stupid mistake, and we knew it," Hunter said. "We've had a lot of those.
"Turnovers. Turnovers and silly little things. Ball sense and knowing the game. The little things add up, and that's what kills us."
Star of the game: Alisyn Essex, AFC, 21 points, 8 rebounds, 4 steals, assist
Key performers: Sarah Matson, AFC, 11 points, 10 steals, 4 rebounds, 3 assists; Morgan Adolph, Milledgeville, 19 points, 7 rebounds, 5-for-9 from 3
Up next: Polo regional semifinal – No. 1 Prophetstown vs. No. 5 AFC, 6 p.m. Wednesday