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Naperville Central girls basketball coach Andy Nussbaum (second from left) dances with joy as the Redhawks celebrate their last minute win against Benet Academy to clinch the IHSA Regional championship. | Jon Cunningham~For Sun-Times Media ORG XMIT: photo
It was a day after the fact and Naperville Central coach Andy Nussbaum was still in shock about the incredible 44-42 comeback victory his Redhawks pulled off in last Thursday’s regional finals against host Benet.
With 8.2 seconds remaining, Jamie Cuny lobbed a pass into the post and Victoria Trowbridge proceeded to sink a layup to give the regional title to the Redhawks (25-5), who had trailed since the opening moments.
The win sends the Redhawks into the Oswego Sectional semifinals against Neuqua Valley on Tuesday.
Benet led 35-20 at halftime, increased the lead to 16 early in the third quarter and was still up on the Redhawks 41-33 with only two minutes left in the game.
Then Naperville Central’s Shannon Ryan sank a three-pointer, Emily Kraft also connected from beyond the arc and Ryan hit another one to tie the game with just over a minute to play. That set the stage for the final bit of heroics by Cuny and Trowbridge.
“There’s still an element of ‘I can’t believe we won the game,’” said Nussbaum. “I don’t recall a game where I’ve been so surprised that it was over. I never had the feeling, even during the comeback where I thought ‘I think we’re going to win.’ It happened so fast that I didn’t have time.”
To the contrary, with two minutes to go in the game, Nussbaum thought his team could be finishing up its season.
“I was kind of halfway out the door,” said Nussbaum. “When we were that far behind with two minutes to go, I’m starting to think about what I’m going to say to console our girls in my post-game speech. But, the girls had more belief in themselves, Jamie in particular. During timeouts in the second half she was saying ‘we’re all right, we can do this.’ We did a lot of great team things in those last two minutes.”
Nussbaum said that when the Redhawks grabbed a rebound with the score tied and just over a minute still to play, the decision to hold the ball until the final seconds was made by the girls.
“Our girls decided on their own to hold the ball for the last shot,” said Nussbaum. “There’s an amazing amount of basketball maturity going on with our kids. I did know that when Jamie had the ball with ten seconds to go, it was going inside to Victoria.”
“I know that when Victoria posts up, that I look for her,” said Cuny. “We’ve been doing that for for years. She hit the last shot and it was amazing. We missed some shots tonight, but hit them when they counted. This is beyond amazing.”
“It’s great what everyone can do if you work together,” said Trowbridge, who finished the game with 17 points, 13 rebounds and seven blocked shots. “The shooting by Shannon and Emily in the second half was wonderful. Coming out for the second half behind 15 points, we knew we were going to do it or we were gone. I’m so proud of how we turned it around.”
Ryan, who finished the game with 13 points, reflected on her clutch shooting down the stretch.
“I’ve been in the gym so many hours just shooting those threes,” said Ryan. “My dad always says ‘don’t think about the first quarter or the half, just think about the now.’ And that’s what I did. I just chucked it up there. My teammates encouraged me. We’ve been in tough situations many times and we always calm each other down. We wanted to make this special for our seniors. We didn’t want this to be our last game.”
As for Nussbaum, how does the victory stack up among the 543 wins his teams have racked up in his 25 years as the coach of Naperville Central?
“We’ve had dramatic comebacks before,” he said. “But I can’t think of a better win than this. We won some and in others we fell just short. But, we’ve never had a comeback like this to cut down the nets.”
As far as the thrill of victory, Nussbaum has to rank this game up there with the comeback win over Neuqua Valley at the Oswego Tournament earlier this season, and the two wins over Fenwick, the second for the state championship in 2003.
The Redhawks, who finished 35-0 that year behind the great Candace Parker, beat Fenwick in overtime in the championship game, and, earlier in the season, they topped the Friars in the final seconds for the title at the Dundee-Crown Tournament.
“But I admit this team surprised me tonight,” said Nussbaum. “And I’m very happy to be surprised. In 25 years, I can’t remember a game quite like it. We’ll be able to put this book on the shelf and read it whenever we want. But we can’t celebrate too long, because we have another big game coming up.”