FREEPORT – As Sauk Valley’s turnover total crept higher and higher, its chances of postseason survival got smaller and smaller.
The Skyhawks’ last two turnovers in the final 20 seconds sealed their fate in a 72-65 loss to Malcolm X on Sunday afternoon in a Region IV Tournament semifinal.
Sauk Valley (13-15) wound up with 27 turnovers, more than twice their opponent’s total (13). Still, the Skyhawks had a chance to snatch away victory. They were down 69-65 with 25.6 seconds remaining, with possession of the ball after Malcolm X’s Jaleesa Armstrong hit the second of two free throws.
A turnover at midcourt with 20 seconds left, however, took away a critical SVCC opportunity. Armstrong was fouled and hit two free throws with 17.4 seconds remaining to up her team’s lead to six at 71-65.
Malcolm X’s Lakenya Davis then stole the inbounds pass to snuff out what little chance the Skyhawks had at a miracle finish.
“We just made too many mistakes,” SVCC coach Jed Johnson said. “We ended up with 27 turnovers. To compete with them, with 27 turnovers, our girls played pretty hard.”
“It was a huge issue,” sophomore guard Lydia Box added. “We had so many stupid turnovers that we could have eliminated, but it happens. If we could have cut down on the turnovers, we would have been fine, but it happens.”
Before getting the two key turnovers at crunch time, Malcolm X (20-5) got three consecutive critical stops while nursing a 62-60 lead and 4 minutes to play. Sauk’s Brianna Richardson missed a pair of inside jumpers, and was also stripped of the ball by Armstrong when it appeared a layup was imminent.
“We stress defense,” said Malcolm X coach Kim McQuarter, a star at Chicago Marshall in the mid 1980s who later played at Old Dominion. “Defense is what wins basketball games, especially championships. You’ve got to be able to stop people. If you can’t stop people, you’re not going to win games.”
Malcolm X used just six players, as it continues to get by without the services of shooting guard Ariana Novak. A 17 points-per-game scorer, she tore an ACL the last time Malcolm X played SVCC, back on Jan. 19.
Picking up the slack was Armstrong, a quick point guard who shot often (8-for-26, for 22 points), but more importantly dished out 11 assists against just three turnovers.
“She’s just tough to guard,” Johnson said. “She can shoot it, but if you step out, she’s going to go by you. We really tried to clog the lane and help out when we could, but she’s still going to get hers. She’s one of those players. She’s a nice player.”
Mariah Jordan matched Armstrong with 22 points, while Jordan Whitaker added 11. The Lady Hawks were out-rebounded 43-27, but made up for that shortcoming in turnover (27-13) and steal (14, compared to just 4 four SVCC) disparity.
Sheldeen Joseph paced Sauk Valley with 21 points, on 9-for-15 shooting. Richardson dropped in 19 points and grabbed nine boards, while Box added 14 points.
The Skyhawks ended the season on a 4-game losing streak, dropped seven of their last nine, and dealt with issues such as eligibility and injury that typically torpedo a potentially successful season.
“It’s been a battle,” Johnson said. “It’s been a tough year for us, losing players and dealing with injuries and stuff like that. I’m just proud of them. Record-wise, it doesn’t take into consideration what you’ve been through and what’s happening. I’m satisfied with how hard they played tonight, and how they competed all season.”
“There’s games that we totally could have won,” said Box, who returned after missing 2 weeks with a concussion, “but it happens. You go into some games thinking you’re going to win, but something happens, and they out-play us. It is what it is.”
Malcolm X, meanwhile, will be trying to take the rubber game from Highland, which routed Kennedy-King 74-54 in the first semifinal on Sunday. Malcolm X won 93-75 on Dec. 11 in Chicago, while Highland won 64-62 on Jan. 5 in Freeport.
“We do like our position,” McQuarter said, “and we’re happy to be in the championship. We’re familiar with them, as I’m sure they’re familiar with us. It’ll be a good game.”
Star of the game: Jaleesa Armstrong, Malcolm X, 22 points, 11 assists
Key performers: Sheldeen Joseph, Sauk, 21 points; Brianna Richardson, Sauk, 19 points, 9 rebounds; Mariah Jordan, Malcolm X, 22 points
Up next: Region IV championship, Malcolm X vs. Highland, 5 p.m. today