LET'S HEAR IT FOR THE GIRLS — 1-21-09

Tom Batters
Anna Kreuser (pictured) and Jenni Erlandson give Dunlap a potent tandem in the post.

Welcome to “Let’s Hear it for the Girls,” my Web-only column devoted exclusively to Mid-State 6 and Mid-Illini Conference girls basketball.

Today’s installment focuses on last night’s game between Richwoods and Peoria Central.

The Lady Knights (21-2), ranked third in the state, were looking for revenge against the Lady Lions (14-8), who beat them on their home court in December.

This game did not start well for Richwoods. In fact, I thought about leaving at halftime to go catch the rest of the game between Peoria Notre Dame and Woodruff (more on that one later).

Richwoods trailed, 24-10 early in the second quarter and it looked like they were heading toward a blowout loss.

I’m glad I stuck around, though.

Trailing 28-18 at halftime, the Lady Knights went on a 10-1 run to start the third quarter.

Katie Murphy grabbed a steal and passed to Maddie Nieukirk, who made a layup. Mariah Smith followed with a three-pointer. Danielle DesJardins hit Nieukirk with a beautiful pass on the fast break and Nieukirk hit another layup. Nieukirk then drove the lane, made a shot off the glass and was fouled by Tiffany Kellum. She made the free throw to get Richwoods back to within one point (29-28).

The Lady Knights were back. The comeback was on.

But Central, thanks to a couple threes from ShaVonn Watkins, gained its cushion back and opened a 38-39 lead.

Murphy hit a jump shot and Smith converted a layup underneath the basket to keep Richwoods close. Central led, 40-33 at the end of the third quarter.

The came the fourth quarter. Wow! What a fourth quarter for the Lady Knights.

They outscored Central, 25-7 in the final quarter. I’ll write that again, just in case you thought it was a typo. 25-7!

Back-to-back baskets by Nieukirk and a couple free throws by Smith made it a 42-39 game.

Then Smith hit a three-pointer from the corner to tie the game at 42-42 with 6:25 left.

With 5:55 left, Murphy made a free throw to give the Lady Knights their first lead of the game.

DesJardins then stole the ball and made a precision bounce pass the length of the court to Amber Metzger, who made the open layup to pad the lead to 45-42.

Central scored just five more points in the final five minutes of the game, and Richwoods won, 52-47.

So, what happened? What led to the monumental comeback? How did Richwoods go from looking so bad to so good?

“We came together as a team,” said DesJardins, the Richwoods senior point guard and team captain. “In the first half, it was everybody playing as individuals. In the second half, we played together.”

I asked her if coach John Gross said anything profound at halftime to spark the comeback, and she said, “The main message was: you better show up to play in the second half.”

Nieukirk said the consensus at halftime among players and coaches was that Central wanted the win more than Richwoods did.

“We couldn’t let that happen,” she said. “We wanted this game so bad. We wanted to come out in the second half and prove it.”

DesJardins said it felt good to hand Central a loss on their floor, since the Lady Lions beat the Lady Knights at Richwoods earlier in the season.

“We did to them exactly what they did to us,” she said.

Gross said a big factor in the game was when Kellum fouled out with 3:50 left to play. Kellum was going for her own rebound on a missed foul shot when she collided with DesJardins to get the foul call.

“Kellum just kills us,” Gross said. “She takes our post players out of the game. We’ve always had problems with her.”

Smith scored a game-high 27 points (11 in the fourth quarter). Nieukirk had 13 points. Murphy had 10 points and was 6-for-8 from the free throw line. She made five of six free throws down the stretch to prevent Central from getting back in the game.

Gross only used six players in the game. Shyla Nott came off the bench briefly, but the five starters (Metzger, Smith, DesJardins, Nieukirk and Murphy) played virtually the entire game.

After Metzger got her third foul early in the third quarter, Gross said to her from the bench, “That’s your third foul,” but he did not take her out.

Metzger’s contributions should not be overlooked. She only scored three points, but she battled hard against the stingy Central pressure defense. Even with two players stuck to her like glue, she (and DesJardins) broke the pressure and got the ball past half court.

The win gives Richwoods control of the Mid-State 6 Conference. They are the only team with just one loss.

Richwoods and Central may meet again in the postseason. That is a matchup Gross is hoping to avoid.

“We don’t match up well with them,” he said. “They are a very good team.”

COACH OF THE YEAR?

Peoria Notre Dame’s Ron Carrothers gets my early vote for “Coach of the Year.” The Irish, who went 11-19 last year, are 14-9 in his first season with the school.

The Irish beat Woodruff, 51-34, last night to complete their season sweep of the Lady Warriors. Notre Dame is now 3-2 in the Mid-State 6 Conference. If the Irish can beat Richwoods Jan. 27, they will have a good shot to tie for first place in the conference, a though that was unheard of at this time last year.

Junior forward Elle Bielfeldt, who is actually listed as a center even though she is only 5’10,” is a big reason why the Irish are playing so well of late.

She is averaging 16 points per game over the last few weeks. She scored 15 against Woodruff.

She scored 18 points in both games of last Saturday’s Mid-Winter Classic (a win at Galesburg and a loss at Morton).

Bielfeldt is also second in the conference with a .735 free-throw percentage.

DUNLAP ON A ROLL

After a disappointing home loss to East Peoria, in which the offense stalled (just 32 points), Dunlap has gotten it together. The Lady Eagles earned a big road win over Canton last week, and beat Limestone at home, 52-37. Dunlap features the best one-two punch in the post with senior forwards Jenni Erlandson and Anna Kreuser. Erlandson is third in the conference in scoring (18 points per game). Kreuser averages 12 points per game. Dunlap plays at Metamora at 7 p.m. Friday night in a key Mid-Illini Conference game. Metamora is 12-8 after a non-conference win over Normal Community last night.

UPCOMING GAMES

• Richwoods at Normal West, 7:30 p.m. Thursday

• Dunlap at Metamora, 7 p.m. Friday

• Richwoods vs. Springfield at home, 12:30 p.m. Saturday

• Notre Dame at Bloomington Central Catholic, 7:30 p.m. Saturday

NO CHANGE IN THE POLLS

Richwoods is ranked No. 3 once again in the latest Associated Press Class 3A poll. The Lady Knights have beaten two of the other teams in the top 10 (Freeport and Rock Island Alleman). Freeport and Peoria Central are the only two teams to beat the Lady Knights.