FREEPORT – Basketball games where teams trade runs normally come down to the most simple aspect.
For every run and momentum-stealing bucket Highland had Monday night in the Region IV championship, Sauk Valley always had an answer.
Ultimately, the Skyhawks’ inability to connect on consecutive shots did them in, as the Cougars held on 85-77 to advance.
“It was definitely a good game,” Sauk Valley coach Michele Kreczmer said. “We fought. We just couldn’t make it up on the offensive end.”
Sauk Valley (13-15) trailed 43-37 at halftime, and was down 53-42 with 6:51 left in the third quarter after a three-point play by Highland’s Sharee Herrod. However, Jaida Carson hit a 3 to cut it to 58-53 with 2:53 to go in third and drilled another triple to cut the Skyhawks’ deficit to 62-59 after three despite the Cougars hitting 10 of 17 shots in the quarter.
“We had a couple of rebounds over them that were good boards, and we were making shots too,” Carson said.
Highland (20-9) extended its lead to 68-62 after back-to-back 3s by De’Azia Williams, and saw its advantage grow to 75-64 after hitting four of its first five shots of the fourth quarter. Sauk battled back again, pulling to within two down at 77-75 with 2:42 to go after a Bre Scheidegger 3 and free throws and a three-point play by Isabelle Shiaras.
“As a team, everybody worked together,” Kreczmer said. “We got Jaida shots. It stinks that we didn’t get the win, but we played well together. We got people open, but we just couldn’t get over the hump.”
Kennedy Kuyendall’s putback off her own missed 3 cut the Skyhawks’ deficit to 80-77 with a little more than a minute to go, but Highland’s Wynter Townsend made five of eight free throws down the stretch to complete the Cougars’ season sweep of Sauk.
“We had to learn to do that. Early in the year, we would’ve folded,” Highland coach Lonnie Boga said. “We played tougher games and became a team. It was a tough win.”
The Skyhawks started strong, jumping out to a 12-6 lead with 5:38 left in the first quarter after a Scheidegger steal and layup. Highland responded with a 12-1 run in the next 3 minutes, as Naomi McKenzie hit back-to-back 3s, Williams made a bucket through contact, and Herrod picked up a steal and layup.
Carson scored Sauk’s final five points of the first, including a 3 at the buzzer to cut the deficit to 20-18 after one. A putback and pair of free throws by Bailey Wetzell tied the game at 24 at the 7:31 mark of the second quarter, and a Scheidegger 3 and Shiaras layup gave the Skyhawks a 33-30 edge with 4:31 to go before intermission.
The lead went back and forth before the Cougars closed the first half on a 6-0 run.
Highland finished at 46 percent (33-for-71) from the field for the game. Williams led the way with 25 points, 12 rebounds, three steals and a block, while Herrod pitched in 23 points off the bench.
“I was excited for those two because early in the season, those two needed the most growth and development,” Boga said of Herrod and Williams. “They listened and grinded. To see them blossom at the end of the year was special.”
McKenzie added 14 points and a pair of steals for the Cougars, while Townsend stuffed the stat sheet with 13 points, 11 boards, nine assists and four steals.
Sauk was just 35 percent (22-for-62) from the field, but hung in with a 23-for-29 performance from the free-throw line. Carson scored a game-high 26 points and recorded four rebounds and five assists, while Shiaras had a double-double with 18 points and 13 boards. Scheidegger added 13 points, four rebounds and two steals, while Wetzell chipped in 12 points and six boards. Kuyendall was held to just eight second-half points in her final game for the Skyhawks.