Eureka eliminated Knoxville and Camp Point Central/Southeastern from the postseason. They disposed of the former 54-47 in the Feb. 12 Farmington Sectional. Four days before that, the Hornets edged CPC/SE 47-43 in the Havana Regional final.
At the 2017 Rockridge Sectional, Eureka led 12-9 after the first period before they pulled away for a 58-42 win.
“We played Knoxville a year ago and they graduated three seniors,” pointed out Hornets’ coach Jerry Prina. “I thought it would be tough to replace three seniors. Very well-coached team by Coach (Dean) Axcell.”
This go-around, the Eureka (27-3) seized the momentum right before halftime when Tessa Leman (13 points) banked in a 30-footer just before the buzzer to give the Hornets a 26-22 lead.
“You cannot say we did not have the momentum,” Prina said. “That was such a great basket. It was a loose ball. They got some. We got some. On that, we happened to stay on our feet.”
The Hornets, who made just eight of 22 shots from the floor in the first half, connected on seven of 11 in the third quarter, and led by as many as 11 at 38-27 on a basket from Meredith Bardwell.
Knoxville (25-8) got as close as four, lastly at 50-46. The Blue Bullets were led by 5-foot-11 junior forward Lauren Kavanagh, who poured in a game-high 24 points.
“Fifteen (Kavanagh) was just a ton in the first half,” said Prina, who saw Kavanagh collect 14 of Knoxville’s 22 points. “(She’s) a good player. We tried to feel her out (first half). Second half, we did a better job.”
Four of the five Blue Bullets’ starters are non-seniors, as they only have one on the entire roster in Emily Lenz.
Natalie Bardwell paced Eureka with a team-high 19 points.
The Hornets also benefitted from 16 Knoxville turnovers.
“We really were not sure what to expect from them,” said Prina of the Blue Bullets from a ballhandling perspective. “We’re not that predictable with what defense we want to play. We’ve been really good at adapting at what the other team does.”
Eureka finished 18 of 43 from the field for 42 percent compared to 16 of 39 for Knoxville (41 percent).
Trailing 29-17 midway through the third quarter, the outlook was dim for the Hornets, but they eventually charged back and grabbed a 42-41 lead on a Courtney Heffren steal and layup with three minutes and eight seconds to go. That was Eureka’s first lead since 7-5.
Delaney Lantz had a chance to give CPC/SE (18-10) the lead at 44-43 with 1:17 left, but she failed to connect on a runner in the lane. Approximately 45 seconds later, the junior guard picked up her fifth foul on a charge call near midcourt. She poured in 39 of the 43 points, including all 20 for the Panthers in the second half.
“She’s legit. She’s phenomenal,” commented Prina about Lantz. “We held her to 39. That was the joke. We threw our best at her. Luckily, she missed some shots.”
T. Leman made a free throw and N. Bardwell connected on a pair for the final margin. Leman, who managed no baskets and three free throws over the initial 17 minutes, scored 12 over the last 15, to finish with 15 points.
The Hornets made just five of 17 field goals in the first half, but found the range in the second, as they converted 10 of 16.
Prina was quick to point out the contributions of substitutes in junior Morgan Greene and sophomores M. Bardwell and Darby Leman, all of whom provided quality minutes.
“The difference in the game was our bench,” he said. “Just trailing the whole game and having role players step up and play big gives us confidence. It’s the type of thing where the atmosphere and pressure can get to a player, but they stayed focus and took care of business. That’s what good teams do.”
The Hornets outrebounded the co-op 32 to 18.