Lady Spartans go down fighting
With a team full of talented and hungry players to start the season, Oak Lawn coach Janet Meyers said an early goal was for her Lady Spartans to advance deeper into the postseason.
After defeating Mother McAuley for the first time in school history the previous week to win a Class 4A regional championship, Oak Lawn kept its downstate hopes alive with a thrilling 61-56 victory over Marist -- another first for the program -- in last Tuesday night’s Bloom Township Sectional semifinal. And then the Lady Spartans went toe-to-toe with defending state champion Marian Catholic in Thursday’s championship contest.
Assuredly, Oak Lawn opened the eyes of the other group of Lady Spartans, who watched a seven-point lead disappear in the final 43 seconds of regulation. Marian got the last say, emerging triumphant by a 67-62 count in overtime, but not before discovering a 28-win Oak Lawn squad was the real deal.
“Marian Catholic is a great team and the defending state champs,” Meyers said. “We knew that coming in, but we were also playing our best basketball of the season. We were peaking as a team and excited about the challenge. We put ourselves in a position to win, but we just couldn’t get over that hump to grab the lead.
“A lot of people didn’t think we would have a chance in that game, and I’m so proud of my girls for how they competed. They stepped up for us and showed how hard we’ve been working and that we were very capable of winning that game.”
LaTondra Brooks (23 points), Jannah Mahmoud (16 points, 10 rebounds) and Brianna Markusic (10 points) were the Lady Spartans’ leading performers, and it was Brooks stepping forward at crunch time. With Oak Lawn facing a 53-46 deficit in the closing moments, Brooks nailed a 3-point shot, forced a jump ball that regained possession for her team, and then hit a total of four free throws over the last 20 seconds to create a 53-all deadlock.
She also opened the extra session with a drive to the hoop that handed the Lady Spartans a 55-53 lead over their namesakes from Chicago Heights. Before fouling out with a minute to go, Brooks converted a three-point play.
A Brooke Annerino 3-pointer had Oak Lawn within 63-61, but Marian’s Ashton Millender tallied all but two of her club’s 14 overtime points to help it outlast the Lady Spartans, who trailed by no more than six points at any period stop.
“Despite being down six at the end of third quarter, we just kept fighting,” Meyers said. “In the final minute, the kids, and especially LaTondra, responded. Brooke hit the big 3 to pull us back within two points, but Marian was solid from the free-throw line — that’s what championship teams do.”
Oak Lawn’s slower-than-normal start to the contest was due to missed layups and just a 4-of-11 performance from the floor. Mahmoud helped keep things close with her rebounding.
“The missed free throws and missed easy shots obviously hurt,” Meyers said. “Nerves are going to play a part, especially with 17- and 18-year-old kids. We were hanging in there, and I told the kids at halftime we just had to keep pecking away and put ourselves in the position to win.
“One of Marian’s key players, [Teniya] Page, broke us down in the first half and we did much better against her in the second half. We kept Millender contained in the first, but she took it to us in the second half. They have a lot of weapons [and] we tried to keep them under control.
“It’s disappointing because we were so close, but we played hard and followed our game plan.”
Brooks (18 points), Mahmoud (14 points, 12 rebounds), Markusic (four points, seven rebounds) and Duneya Shatat (10 points) all contributed greatly to the Oak Lawn attack in its triumph over Marist.
Annerino, meanwhile, converted a big layup with 10 seconds left to give the Lady Spartans a three-point lead. Mahmoud then made two free throws with four seconds remaining to ice the contest and put Oak Lawn in its first-ever sectional championship game.
Just as the Lady Spartans were to do a couple nights later, the Lady RedHawks went down swinging. Marist narrowed its deficit to 55-53 on a basket by Tehya Fortune (eight points) and then had a chance to pull even when Bri Rosa stole the ball.
Rosa’s potential breakaway layup was denied, however, as a determined Brooks knocked the ball away. The latter then delivered on the offensive side with her own layup that put Oak Lawn ahead 57-53.
A 3-pointer from Brooke Wyderski (17 points) brought the Lady RedHawks back within one at the 26-second mark of the fourth quarter, but Annerino and Mahmoud then joined forces to fend off Marist once and for all.
“We really had been taking everything one game at a time,” Meyers said. “We never tried to look too far ahead, despite our goal of advancing further.
“The kids were pumped up to play Marist and we had a real strong first quarter. We were up 23-12 and played well in the first couple minutes of the second quarter, but then we kind of lost our focus and got careless -- and you can’t get careless against a good team like Marist.
“They outscored us 15-8, but we were still up 31-27 [at halftime]. We came out more focused in the third quarter and we were up 45-39 at the end, [so] we knew we just had to hang on in the fourth quarter.”
But Meyers also knew, without a doubt, that the fourth quarter would be more than just a lesson in survival.
“Marist came at us and we were able to hold them off,” Meyers said. “We had big plays by several players. That block by LaTondra Brooks, though, was incredible. But we knew that other players besides LaTondra would have to step up
“In our loss to Hillcrest, everyone kind of backed up and tried to let LaTondra take it over, and that wasn’t successful for us. It was nice to have everyone contribute to the win.”
While getting them ready for Marist, Meyers brought her athletes back to their earliest goal.
“All year, we had talked about [how] our goal was to get further into the postseason than we had ever reached previously,” she said. “We had worked all season with that in mind and we worked really hard in practice.
“We kept preparing for what would be waiting for us at the end of the season. That was our focus to advance, and we accomplished that with the win over McAuley. We had never gotten past the first game of sectionals, so we knew the game against Marist was a big hurdle to get over.”
In the end, Meyers and her players relished a season filled with firsts for a program that had been on the verge of a breakout for the past two years.
“We set the school record in wins, won conference again, and we won both [regular-season] tournaments we competed in,” Meyers said. “We beat both McAuley and Marist for the first time and had so much hope about the postseason. We’re a little disappointed that we were so close and unable to take it to the next level, but this team restored excitement in the basketball program.
“The school hallways were jumping and excited about basketball. We had a lot of people come to the games and watching on highschoolcube. A lot of people were excited about Oak Lawn girls’ basketball, so that was great to see the atmosphere at the school.
“The girls worked hard and they deserved the recognition.”
The Lady Mustangs started strong in last Tuesday’s Class 3A Solorio Sectional semifinal against Phillips, but they were unable to sustain the early energy and fell short of a championship-game berth by six points, 45-39.
Zoe Monks scored 13 points and Megan Pfister added 10 to lead Evergreen Park (15-15), which jumped out to an early 10-point lead. However, the edge was just 16-11 at the end of the first quarter and four points at halftime.
The Lady Wildcats chipped away further and began to make their run toward the end of third stanza and beginning of the fourth, eventually constructing a 10-point advantage of their own. The surge coincided with Pfister having to exit the game for five minutes with a sprained ankle.
When she returned, Pfister caught fire, scoring seven of her points in the final frame while keeping her team within two in the closing minute. However, some unforced Lady Mustangs turnovers, coupled with clutch free throws by Phillips, put an end to Evergreen’s playoff drive.
“We were confident going into the game,” Lady Mustangs coach Bruce Scaduto said. “We were pretty much prepared. We were ready for their man-to-man [defense]. We came out kind of hot and kind of flattened out from there.
“We were still feeling confident by the end of the first quarter, [but] Phillips started to press us in the second quarter and one of our players got in foul trouble, which hurt us a bit. We went into halftime up by four, but we had a hard time scoring in the third [period]. Things just weren’t going our way and they were slowly coming back.
And losing Pfister for those minutes, Scaduto said, definitely didn’t help.
“Megan saw things slipping away while she was on the bench,” he said. “She came back with some fire, even though she was wobbling a bit. She did everything she could to get us back in it.”
Scaduto said the Lady Mustangs’ shooting betrayed them -- “We didn’t get good looks [in some instances] and we missed some easy shots,” he said -- but that couldn’t take away from what Evergreen had already achieved in the tournament.
“It wasn’t our night, but winning back-to-back regionals was nice,” he said. “It didn’t come out the way wanted in the sectional, but we’re starting to get some wins and advancement in the playoffs. It’s all been good.”