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Neuqua Valley's Malia Smith drives around East Aurora's Brandi McAlister on Thursday, January 31, 2013, in Naperville. | Jeff Cagle~For Sun-Times Media
Neuqua Valley was celebrating Senior Night but it was East Aurora the felt the pressure Thursday night.
Full-court pressure, that is.
The host Wildcats came out in a full-court press and forced six early turnovers. That set the tone for No. 9 Neuqua Valley’s 67-32 victory, which wrapped up an unbeaten run through the Upstate Eight Valley. It is the first conference title since 2007 for the Wildcats (24-2, 12-0), who will wrap up their best regular season ever next week with a UEC crossover contest before opening the playoffs the following week.
“This is our second-to-last game and we knew we wanted to end with a win so we decided to come out as we normally do, put the pressure on with our defense, get some steals and fast-break layups,” Neuqua Valley senior Allison Hedrick said. “That’s exactly what we did.”
Hedrick had a steal and layup during an opening 15-2 run that saw Neuqua make four layups, a transition jumper and three-point play. But she had plenty of help from her younger teammates, particularly junior reserve Niki Lazar, who came off the bench to score 10 of her team-leading 13 points in the first half as the hosts took a 37-13 cushion into halftime.
Lazar made all five of her shots from the floor, including a fourth-quarter three-pointer, and both of her free-throw attempts. The hot start was in stark contrast to some of Neuqua’s recent efforts, which featured sluggish offensive play.
“Our goal is to make it to state, so we want to come out at every practice, every game working hard,” Hedrick said. “The last couple games we started off a little flat in the first half, so we wanted to come out with a lot of energy to prepare us for the state playoffs.”
All of the Wildcats did that, with 11 players scoring. Hedrick, Lauren Deveikis, Najee Smith and Bryce Menendez all scored eight points, while Myia Starks added seven points and Malia Smith and Maya Cobb both scored four. Hedrick had four of Neuqua’s 14 steals, while Menendez dished four of their 13 assists.
“It was a good game to prepare us because we’ve been coming out kind of slow,” Lazar sad. “This gets us back in the flow.”
While the Wildcats lack big-name players, their balanced offense and air-tight defense have them primed for a deep postseason run.
“With our team we don’t have one star, so we can all step up,” Lazar said. “We don’t have to count on one person the whole game. Anyone can step up. It’s amazing.”
East Aurora (11-12, 5-7) doesn’t have the same depth and it showed. Tyshee Towner tallied 18 points and six rebounds before fouling out midway through the fourth quarter and Desiree Rhodes had seven points, nine rebounds, three steals and three blocks but made only 2-of-17 shots, missing all nine attempts in the first half. No other Tomcats had more than three points.