DeKALB – The missed layups and free throws were mounting Monday night for the Eastland Cougars. But Lexis Macomber and her teammates harkened back to words of wisdom they received earlier in the day via email from former Aquin star Sophie Brunner.
"She said in the email that if we had to relax, do it on offense and not on defense," Macomber said. "I thought we did a good job of that, and our defense was good the whole night."
The Cougars used their length to repeatedly force offensive hesitation and awkward shots from Hinckley-Big Rock during the Class 1A DeKalb Supersectional, clinching the girls basketball program's first trip to the state tournament with a smothering defensive effort in a 36-33 victory.
"We knew their tallest player was only 5-foot-9, and we have four or five girls at least that tall," Eastland senior guard Courtney Walker said. "We had the height advantage, and we definitely used it."
That advantage was evident from the get-go, but it wasn't until the second quarter when Eastland (28-5) really capitalized on it.
Trailing 10-6 with 6:22 left until halftime, the Cougars closed the first half on a 13-2 run, capped by a pair of turnaround jumpers on the baseline from Annie Forster for a 19-12 lead heading into the locker room.
"We haven't been hitting our bunnies lately, and we finally knocked some down and got some momentum," Walker said of the Cougars' only real run of the game. "We didn't get a ton of offensive rebounds tonight, but we put the ball in the hole .. and I guess, in the end, that's how you win games."
While Eastland was hitting its shots, it wasn't allowing Hinckley-Big Rock (18-14) the same luxury. In the second quarter, the Cougars forced six Royal turnovers, and held HBR without a field goal on 0-for-10 shooting.
"We've got a lot of tall girls with long arms, and we can run and jump at you," senior forward Miranda Grisham said. "We worked together so well tonight, got hands in their faces, and had good help-side rotation. We didn't want them to get anything easy."
The easy stuff started to come in the second half, in the form of runout layups by junior Jacqueline Madden. She went coast-to-coast off steals twice in the third quarter, and her putback to end the third and another runout layup to start the fourth cut a 27-17 Eastland lead to 27-24.
When Lauren Paver sandwiched a free throw between to more Madden layups, and the Royals trimmed the deficit to 31-39 with 4:58 left thanks to a 10-4 run over the final 1:45 of the third and first 3:02 of the fourth.
Madden scored 15 of her game-high 17 points after halftime.
"They bottled us up pretty well, and kept us out of what we wanted to do for most of the night," HBR coach Greg Burks said. "But when Jacqueline turned it up a notch, started getting out into the open court and taking the ball at the rim, we were much more effective."
But it wouldn't last. Macomber's putback and a free throw from Megan Janssen stopped that HBR surge, then Walker split four free throws in the final 28 seconds – Eastland was just 3-for-8 from the line down the stretch – to provide just enough offense to hang on.
In a fitting end, the Cougars allowed just one field goal – on a loose ball scramble, no less – in the final 4:57, and didn't allow a point on four of the Royals' final five possessions.
"A lot of us weren't too relaxed or calm, especially when we were missing free throws," Macomber said, "but we had a lot of confidence in our defense, and knew if we shut them down, we'd still be in control."
Macomber finished with a double-double of 14 points and 10 rebounds, while Walker added seven points, five rebounds, two assists and four steals. Grisham and Hannah Hake scored four points each, with Hake adding five rebounds and two assists, and Grisham pulling down six boards and blocking four shots.
Madden led the Royals with 17 points, nine rebounds and six steals. Caitlin Flanigan had six points, four rebounds and two steals, Andrea Binkley scored five points, and Paver chipped in four points, six rebounds and four steals.
"I'm happy for Eastland getting down to state, because they're a good team and Colleen's a great lady, and they deserve it," Burks said. "I wish it wasn't at our expense, but they were the more talented team today, and I couldn't be more proud of any team walking off the floor – especially with a loss – than I am with this group."
Eastland earns a date with Annawan, a 71-52 winner over Cissna Park on Monday night, in the Class 1A state tournament semifinals Friday at 2 p.m. at Redbird Arena in Normal.
Class 1A DeKalb Supersectional
Eastland 36, Hinckley-Big Rock 33
Star of the game: Lexis Macomber, Eastland, 14 points, 10 rebounds
Key performers: Jacquline Madden, HBR, 17 points, 9 rebounds, 6 steals; Courtney Walker, Eastland, 7 points, 5 rebounds, 4 steals, 2 assists; Miranda Grisham, Eastland, 4 points, 6 rebounds, 4 blocks
Up next: Class 1A state semifinal, Eastland vs. Annawan, 2 p.m. Friday, at Redbird Arena, Normal