MCLEANSBORO — As time expired Monday night, Abbey Crain fired the basketball from end to end. Jeniah Thompson and Megan Barton jumped into each other’s arms near midcourt.
Next stop, Normal.
The Carterville girls broke through another barrier in the Class 2A Hamilton County Super-Sectional, opening up an 11-point second half lead and then barely holding off proud Teutopolis 57-55 to earn their first trip to the state semifinals.
“I’m overwhelmed with emotions right now,” Crain said. “We’ve never been there before, and I hope we can go all the way.”
The Lions (31-2) draw defending champ Chicago Marshall, a 65-35 winner over Seneca in the Peotone Super-Sectional, at 7:15 p.m. Friday night in Illinois State’s Redbird Arena. They’ll be considered an underdog by most around the state, but coach Matt Crain will give them the same piece of advice there he did before this one.
“Take 10 seconds, look around and let her rip,” he said.
Carterville followed his advice perfectly in the second half, when it gave itself the separation required to survive a huge rally by the Wooden Shoes in the final two minutes. After hurrying shots and playing a lot of one-on-one basketball in scoring only 20 first half points, the Lions canned 12 of 19 field goals in the second half.
Perhaps 70 percent of the crowd in Jerry Sloan Gymnasium was wearing orange and blue, and they were in full throat during a 37-point second half against an outstanding defensive team.
“We moved the ball, we talked to each other, we know what we were doing,” said sophomore Alecia Doyle, who scored a team-high 17 points. “And we worked as a team.”
That was obvious from the half’s first 10 seconds. Carterville ran a set play for Abbey Crain, who went scoreless on 0 of 4 shooting in the first half. She drained a corner 3, followed by Barton’s bold baseline drive for a six-point lead that forced a 30-second timeout from Teutopolis.
The margin reached 10 before the Wooden Shoes slashed it in half in the final two minutes. But the Lions got the last shot and Thompson swished a high-arcing 3-ball from the top of the key for a 37-29 lead.
Two foul shots by Thompson made it 50-40 with 2:20 left in the game. That margin seemed safe, given that Carterville’s 1-2-2 halfcourt trap gummed up Teutopolis’ halfcourt offense for most of the second half.
But the Shoes weren’t interested in going quietly. Olivia Niemerg, Ciara Roepke and Lexie Niebrugge each hit 3s in the last two minutes. When Niebrugge bombed away from 25 feet with 16.6 seconds left, the Lions’ once-safe lead was down to 56-53.
“We were more and more anxious for the game to end, wanting to go to state,” Thompson said.
Doyle was fouled with 13.9 seconds on the clock and missed the first, but swished the second for a four-point lead. Karsyn Mette converted a stickback with 5.7 seconds left, but Teutopolis was out of timeouts. That meant all Carterville had to go was execute a simple inbounds pass to Crain.
Moments later, the biggest celebration in program history was in full swing.
“I’m so glad we’re going, and that we did it as a team,” Barton said.
Barton and Thompson each added 16 points for the Lions, who canned 10 of 14 at the foul line in the fourth quarter.
Niebrugge scored a game-high 18 points for the Shoes (25-9), which were bidding for their fifth state tournament trip in seven years. Niemerg and 6-0 sophomore Kaitlyn Schumacher each added 13.
Teutopolis held Carterville scoreless for 6:32 in the second quarter, opening up a 19-14 lead on Niebrugge’s 3-pointer. But the Lions, playing in their first Super-Sectional, rattled off six straight points in the final 1:06. They grabbed a 20-19 halftime edge when Averi Vanderzille collected the rebound of a Doyle miss and scored with 11.3 seconds left.
They carried that momentum into the second half, and will do something on Wednesday no Carterville girls basketball team has ever done: Board a bus for the state tournament.
“I’m ready to go,” Thompson said.