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What a difference a week made for defending Class 4A state champion Marian Catholic.

A week after giving up a late lead and losing by a point at Fremd, the Spartans calmly erased an eight-point halftime deficit to Neuqua Valley in the championship game of Oswego’s Hoops for the Troops Holiday Classic and pulled away for a 59-51 win.

“We’re very happy to win the championship,” Marian coach Dan Murray said. “If you were at the Fremd game, you would have said exactly the opposite [that the Spartans were good at closing out games]. It’s been a big point of emphasis. From a week ago to today, I thought we showed a lot of improvement in terms of closing a game. But we have been hammering that in practice. Hat’s off to the girls in terms of responding.”

Neuqua (10-3) came out inspired against the state champions and finished off the first half on a 7-2 run to take a 25-17 lead at the half. The Wildcats held Marian’s top two scorers, tournament MVP Ashton Millender and point guard Teniya Page, to eight combined points in the half.

“They’re not going to do that the entire game,” Neuqua coach Mike Williams said. “They’re too good of players to hold back the entire game. They came out, like good teams do, in the third quarter and they put the screws to us and tightened us down.

The Spartans (9-2) settled for jump shots often in the first half instead of attacking the rim and forced only three turnovers in the half. In the third quarter, however, Marian changed its approach.

The Spartans started the third quarter off with a 19-2 run, with all the points coming from within eight feet of the rim and at the free throw line. They forced seven Neuqua turnovers in the third.

“We just had to pick it up defensively,” Millender said. “Our offense comes from our defense, so we just had to pick it up defensively and rebound. We had to stay composed. It’s all about composure at the end.”

Marian had the momentum and Neuqua starters Niki Lazar, Malia Smith and Najee Smith all fouled out in the fourth quarter. But the Wildcats did not quit. They cut the lead to 56-51 in the final minute but couldn’t get any closer. Kai Moon scored 10 of her team-high 15 points in the fourth. Myia Starks added eight of her 10 points off the bench in the fourth.

“We didn’t stop playing,” Williams said. “We had three kids foul out and we were still playing to the last second. I know they’re state champions from last year, but this is a whole different year.”

Malia Smith added 14 points for Neuqua. Moon and Najee Smith were named to the all-tournament team.

Page led the Spartans with 17 points. Dajhee Mullins scored 12 and Jerell Matthews added 10 for Marian. Page joined Millender on the all-tournament team.

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