FORRESTON – There's nothing fancy, nothing flashy about the way the Amboy Clippers' style of basketball. In fact, sometimes it's not very pretty at all.
But the end result, more often than not this season, has been beautiful.
In another hard-nosed, grind-it-out game Tuesday night, the Clippers won the program's first sectional game since 1984, beating ninth-ranked Dakota 31-30 in the first semifinal of the Class 1A Forreston Sectional.
"I'm just so overjoyed, I can't even tell you," said Micaela McCoy, the team's lone senior, bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet. "I'm just so proud of this team, so happy for us and the fans, and we just stuck together, believed in ourselves, and worked so well together again tonight."
In a battle of teams with contrasting styles, Amboy (21-6) used its 2-3 zone defense to dictate the pace of play. The Clippers were constantly in the passing lanes, never let Dakota star Jaycee Cleaver find her rhythm, and crashed the boards hard.
"Low-scoring is the way we like it, and it's how we've won games all year," Amboy junior Elizabeth Ortgiesen said. "We're really comfortable winning with our defense."
And while the Indians (25-7) did manage 17 offensive rebounds, the Clippers limited second-chance points while making hay on their own end with their 13 offensive boards.
"Our game plan was to keep them off the boards, and we knew exactly who we had to keep out of there," Dakota coach Kevin Cline said. "The disappointing thing was, from the first possession to the last possession, we utterly failed to do that."
While Cline felt his team got the looks it wanted on several occasions, he lamented the fact that nothing seemed to be falling. And with Amboy playing its scrappy brand of basketball, there was literally no chance for Dakota to get out and run in transition; the Indians outscored the Clippers 2-0 on the fast break.
Dakota made just 13 of its 51 baskets (25.5 percent), hit just four of its 16 3-pointers (25 percent), and did not shoot a free throw in the game. Amboy committed just two fouls, and both came in the final 5½ minutes.
"That's what we want to do: fluster them, make them frustrated, and take them out of what they want to do," McCoy said. "We were talking all game, getting there as soon as the passes touched the shooters' hands, and that was a big key for us."
"It seemed like we were playing so poorly, and you look up and it's only a one- or two-point game," Cline said. "It felt like we were down 10 most of the game … but that's what good defenses will do to you."
There were seven lead changes and four ties in the game, and five of those 11 came in the final 3½ minutes.
Kennedy Dinges' back-to-back mid-range jumpers and Ortgiesen's bucket on an inbounds play set Amboy up with a 23-20 lead heading into the fourth quarter, after the Clippers led 15-13 at halftime. The 6-0 run erased the Clippers' first deficit since 5-3.
"We got some big shots and made some big plays when we needed them," Amboy coach Mike McCracken said. "We got some high-low looks, and knocked down some jump shots. and had every girl out there hustling and playing hard."
Sydney Wilhelm, in her first game back from an extended absence due to injury, made a free throw to give Amboy its biggest lead of the second half (24-20), but Kendalynn Rockey responded with a 3 and a putback off her own missed 3 in consecutive possessions.
McCoy nailed a jumper off another Liebing assist to make it 26-25 Amboy, then Olivia Zimmerman tied the score at 27 with 1:16 to go after Ortgiesen split two free throws.
After a Liebing basket on a feed from Dinges, Rockey buried a 3 from the left side off a skip pass from Zimmerman with 40 seconds to play for a 30-29 Dakota lead.
But Liebing's seventh offensive rebound led to a foul and free throws, and the junior calmly knocked down a pair with 24.4 seconds left for a one-point lead.
"I had missed some free throws earlier, and I knew I should have made them," Liebing said. "I didn't really think about it at the end, I just stepped up and blocked everything out and stayed calm."
Dakota's final possession consisted of a pair of missed shots, then a jump ball that gave the Indians one last chance. But an open 3 from the right corner by center Eden Meier rimmed out, and the ball was not recovered before the final buzzer sounded.
"It was nuts; it was the longest 1.3 seconds of my life," Liebing said. "We were looking for a lob, and we didn't even see that girl in the corner until she was shooting. I ran out at her as hard as I could, and luckily it wasn't one of their good shooters, and it didn't go in.
"We didn't play the greatest defense at times, but we found a way to push through and come up with the win in the end."
Liebing's double-double of 12 points and 13 rebounds led the Clippers, and she also had two assists. Ortgiesen finished with seven points and eight boards, and Dinges and McCoy scored four points apiece. Dinges and Delaney Wilhelm (3 points) nabbed two steals each.
Rockey scored 11 for Dakota, while Zimmerman had seven points, five rebounds, two assists and two steals. Cleaver and Alex Peterson scored six points apiece, with Cleaver chipping in seven rebounds, three assists and two steals.
The Clippers advance to Thursday's championship, where they will face Eastland at 7 p.m. The Cougars beat Galena 42-32 in the second semifinal.
Class 1A Forreston Sectional semifinal
Amboy 31, Dakota 30
Star of the game: Kaitlyn Liebing, Amboy, 12 points, 13 rebounds, 2 assists
Key performers: Elizabeth Ortgiesen, Amboy, 7 points, 8 rebounds; Kendalynn Rockey, Dakota, 11 points; Jaycee Cleaver, Dakota, 6 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals
Up next: Class 1A Forreston Sectional championship, Amboy vs. Eastland, 7 p.m. Thursday