By Donald Daniels
Don’t blame Catholic High for feeling that the lead it held for the majority of the C Conference championship basketball game over Indian Creek was never totally secure.
The top-seeded Eagles, who trailed for the first 29 minutes of action, kept fighting back and seized momentum late until the Cubs were able to prevail in a thrilling 59-56 overtime victory at Stevenson University.
Indian Creek sophomore Megan Bunker, who had 18 points, gave the Eagles a one-point lead to start the extra session, but Cub junior Madison Liggett, who produced a team-high 18 points, gave the Cubs (13-9) the lead for good on a layup after she penetrated the Eagles’ zone defense.
“Even when we lost the lead, we knew we had it,” Catholic senior and Seton Keough transfer Nielah Jones said. “It was teamwork, it was passing, it was all us, it wasn’t just one person, it was all of us.”
“We have been knocked out so many times before we got to the championship, so to finally win it, it just feels great,” Liggett said.
Catholic avenged a 26-point loss to an Indian Creek team that completed the regular season with a perfect 10-0 C conference record.
The heart-pounding championship for the Catholic is its second overall and its first since 2002.
“When we were down, I just looked at the girls and said ‘This is fun, right,?’ “ said Catholic High coach Jim Stomberg, who became the first coach to win a title in all three conferences after his first season guiding the Cubs. “Indian Creek played really well in third and fourth quarter, but we just dug in and fought hard at the end.”
Indian Creek senior Maddie Evans scored a game-high 24 points and hauled down eight rebounds. Kate Walz had scored 14 points for Catholic, including the game’s final score to help cement the title-clinching win.
“We just had to run our offense and stay calm,” Liggett said.
The start of the game saw the Cubs take an 8-0 lead with trifectas from Jones (10 points) and Walz and a Liggett basket in the paint.
The Eagles kept the game within reach with shots from Evans and Bunker, and trailed by only three points at the end of the first period.
Meghan Brandt came out on fire to start the second quarter, drilling two shots from beyond the arc along with a Walz jumper to push the Cubs lead to double digits. They led by 11 at halftime.
Indian Creek (16-4), making its second championship appearance in three years, began a comeback in third quarter.
Senior center Delaney Dignam (8 points, 12 rebounds) helped the Eagle offense by scoring on put-backs and setting screens to create space for her teammates. The Eagles outscored the Cubs, 18-7, in the third quarter and trailed by two to start the final frame.
“We didn’t let them get into our heads,” Liggett said. “We knew we could do it, we just had to play our game and we knew we had it in us.”
With three minutes left in the fourth quarter Evans gave the Eagles their first lead when she made a layup in the lane and nailed the ensuing free throw for a 48-45 advantage.
Catholic retook the lead with 14 seconds to go by scoring its final points in regulation from the charity stripe, thanks to Jones, Walz and Liggett.
Bunker tied the game on a free throw to force overtime, but couldn’t overcome the Cubs in a bid to grab a second championship in three years.
“This is my first year and the kids really bought in. I am not easy to play for, and I give the girls a ton of credit for sticking with me,” Stomberg said.
“A lot of teams would have hung their heads and given up, but they kept playing and played hard to the end,” Indian Creek coach Ciaran Lesikar said. “It was an incredible season. I told the girls to keep their heads up and to be hungry for next season.”