BYRON – Sam Lambrigtsen found senior teammate Devyn Absher with an underhand pass with 37 seconds left in Thursday's Class 2A Byron Regional championship game.
Absher – Ms. Automatic for the night on short-range jumpers – loaded and fired a shot that found nothing but net to pull the Oregon Hawks to within a point of the host Byron Tigers.
The slick execution felt like another momentum shift in the back-and-forth affair between rival school separated by 10 miles of winding Route 2 road.
Instead, it turned into the last highlight for the Hawks in a record-setting season, as the victory disappeared in a deluge of Byron free throws and errant passes. The Tigers won 61-56.
"I think the emotion of the moment got to us a little bit," Oregon coach Kristy Eckardt said. "You can't blame them for that. The atmosphere was intense. It wasn't just the last couple plays, we had chances throughout that we just didn't capitalize on.
"I was so proud with how hard they fought. That was the hardest we've played all season. It just didn't end how we wanted it too."
After the Absher basket, the Tigers brought the ball up-court as the Hawks tried to create a turnover. Instead, the ball came into the hands of 6-foot, 2-inch senior Sophie Reecher. Oregon was forced to foul with 25. seconds left.
Reecher stepped to the line, making the first before the second clanged off the rim.
"I was so nervous at that point," Reecher said. "I wanted more than anything to help the team and make both. I only hit one, but it ended up being enough."
The Hawks had plenty of time to work their offense for a tie or the lead. Instead, a pass by McKaylee Beeter sailed high over everyone's head and out of bounds. The Tigers got the ball back and Oregon fouled Mayson Whipple.
Whipple also made one free throw to give Byron the three-point edge. On the ensuing possession, a pass to the corner got away from an Oregon player and bounced out of bounds for the second turnover in the last 25 seconds. The Hawks (23-7) had committed only seven turnovers previous to that.
Byron's Emily Lehne iced the game with two more free throws. Lambrigtsen got off a 3-pointer from the corner at the buzzer, as the Tigers' celebration started.
"It means everything for us considering everything we went through to get here," Reecher said with tears in her eyes. "We knew it would be tough playing Oregon, with them being so quick and with them being so close to us."
Reecher was unstoppable in the fourth quarter, leading Byron back from a seven-point deficit. She scored 10 of her 24 points in the quarter after missing most of the third quarter after picking up her third foul.
"It's always hard to watch the team play from the bench," Reecher said. "It's even worse in the regional. It was hard watching our team play so hard, but Oregon was starting to pull away."
Fellow post tower Ellie Lehne (6-foot) had 20 points, as the two players size was something the Hawks could not match.
"We tried to help each other as much as we could," Absher said. "We knew that we were at the disadvantage, but we also couldn't leave their guards open because we knew that they can shoot 3s too."
The Hawks, who set a team record for wins this season, trailed all of the first half until Lambrigtsen hit a 3-pointer with 43 seconds left to tie the score at 31. Another rare turnover allowed the Tigers to get a quick basket before the buzzer by Lehne to lead 33-31.
"They scored 41 points on us in the first half last time we played," Absher said. "So we knew that they'd come out strong. We just knew that we had to score every time that they did."
Oregon controlled most of the third quarter with Reecher on the bench. Momentum seemed firmly in their hands after Beeter hit a long 3-pointer before the buzzer to give Oregon the 47-42 lead.
Another jumper by Absher, who had 15 points, gave Oregon a seven-point lead at the beginning of the fourth quarter, but the Tigers would chip away at that before overtaking Oregon midway through the quarter.
Lambrigtsen finished with 15 points and six steals. Beeter had 14 points and four assists.
Byron will meet either Riverdale or Neman on Monday in a semifinal of the Somonauk Sectional.
Star of the game: Sophie Reecher, Byron, 24 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists
Key performers: Ellie Lehne, Byron, 20 points, 8 rebounds; Devyn Absher, Oregon, 15 points; Sam Lambrigtsen, Oregon, 15 points, 6 steals, 3 assists
Up next: 2A Somonauk Sectional semifinal – Byron vs. Newman or Riverdale, 7:30 p.m. Monday