FARMINGTON — Ranked No. 4 in Class 2A, the Eureka High School girls basketball team hasn't had to make many fourth-quarter comebacks.
So when the Hornets were down by nine with just over four minutes to go in Thursday's Farmington Sectional Championship, they had to sharpen their focus.
"I think the key was we had to rebound and we had to make sure that we took it one possession at a time," said senior Natalie Bardwell. "Get the rebound, get down the court and take good shots."
As that plan began to work, Eureka pulled within one of Midwest Central with less than 30 seconds remaining and senior Tessa Leman stepped to the free-throw line.
She made the first, but as the second rolled off the rim, Bardwell trained her rebounding focus.
"Honestly, I thought it was going in. I have complete faith in (Leman)," she said. "But once I saw it hit the rim, I just knew I had to get it. I went and got it, but when I got it I thought, 'Shoot, I'm on the right side.' But I was like 'I don't care, I'm putting it up anyway.' "
Bardwell made the putback and the Hornets successfully defended the final 19.1 seconds to claim a thrilling 64-62 victory.
"I definitely knew I had to keep my composure. I was freaking out but I had to focus on defense," she said.
"Just resilience. I'll say it again and again, this team doesn't quit," said Eureka coach Jerry Prina, whose team improved to 27-3 for a second straight season and advanced to Monday's 7 p.m. Illinois College Super-Sectional against Pleasant Plains (29-3).
Bardwell scored 18 of her 23 points in the first half while going 8 of 9 at the line. Leman added 18 points, but her last miss from the stripe turned out huge.
"Thank goodness Natalie got that, it was huge," said Leman. "It actually turned out better because we got one more point."
The Hornets, who tied last year's program record for wins, overcame another impressive showing by super sophomore Mady Harper, who hit six 3-pointers and finished with 25 points for Midwest Central (22-10).
"I can't believe we've got to face her two more years," said Prina. "Incredible player, and 22 (Megan Teal) is an incredible player. That whole team has a lot to be proud of. I don't even want to say we wanted it more because Midwest Central wanted this as well."
A seesaw third quarter saw the Raiders go up 44-42 on a Harper trey and the lead grew to 51-46 by the end of the period. An Anna Miller layup off a Harper assist pushed the margin to 60-51 midway through the fourth.
That forced Eureka to turn to a full court press.
"We haven't done it all season," said Prina. "We got to the point where we had to; Midwest Central forced us to do something."
Leman's bucket off a steal at midcourt made it 60-58 with 1:33 left. After the Raiders' Nicole Uselton scored on a putback after a missed free throw, Darby Leman drained a trey to make it 62-61 and set the stage for the wild finish.
"I've got two Bardwells (Meredith), I've got two Lemans and I've got a partridge in a pear tree," said Prina. "I've got some point guards and some shooting guards and forwards, and every girl contributes. There isn't a single girl who doesn't help our team."
Natalie Bardwell and Tessa Leman each had eight rebounds for Eureka, with Leman racking up six steals and Courtney Heffren distributing seven assists. Harper, who was complemented by Teal's 18 points, had five steals and four boards.
"I know we gave up a lot of points but I still thought we defended really well because that's one of the best offensive teams we've seen all year," said Midwest Central coach Eric Weaver. "We made them take tough shots and they just made them."
While Tessa Leman scored eight in the first quarter, Harper didn't get her first basket until she split a pair of defenders with a minute left in the quarter to give the Raiders their first lead at 11-10.
A trey by Harper capped a 10-2 run that pushed the Midwest lead to 29-21 midway through the second. But Eureka rallied and pulled even at 34-all on Darby Leman's 3 just before halftime.
"We've had some younger girls completely step up this postseason and I'm so incredibly proud of them," said Bardwell, whose eager for the Hornets' chance to punch their ticket to state.
"Last year we were in the sectionals and lost and it was heartbreaking," she said. "As seniors, we knew we wanted to come back and win this.
"It's an amazing feeling but I know we're not done yet."