By Jason Maholy, Sports Editor and Randy Whalen, Correspondent
First-year Mother McAuley coach Keisha Newell knew the Mighty Macs would have their share of challenges this season coming off last year’s run to the Class 4A championship game.
Four starters who had played multiple years of varsity ball together graduated from that squad, leaving big shoes to a fill for a largely inexperienced group of players. The remaining cast had to build chemistry together while adjusting to significant roles, all while playing a rigorous schedule.
It took a while, but McAuley got rolling at the right time. After going 14-10 through their first 24 games, the Macs have won eight of nine, the last of those a 51-32 triumph over Sandburg in the Macs’ own Class 4A regional title game.
Their postseason run ended there, however, as Homewood-Flossmoor rallied from an eight-point fourth-quarter deficit and defeated them, 54-45, in the Stagg Sectional semifinals on Feb. 24.
McAuley finished 22-12.
“Overall I’m proud of the girls, they left it all on the court,” Newell said. “I thought we did a great job in the first half. But [H-F] got too many offensive rebounds in the second half and that’s what hurt us the most.”
It was the fourth consecutive season the Macs and Vikings have met in the postseason, with each team winning twice.
McAuley led 22-15 at halftime as sophomore guard Isabella Finnegan scored 14 of her team-high 19 points in the first half. But H-F (24-4) opened the third quarter with an 8-0 run, and then, with Marist leading 24-23, Vikings senior guard Imani Mitchell hit a three-pointer to give H-F the lead for good.
The Vikings scored 23 points in the third quarter to take control of the game and led 38-30 heading into the fourth. The Macs closed within four points on three occasions in the fourth quarter, the last time at 47-43 on a Badali basket, but the Vikings made 12-of-16 free throws in the final quarter to put the game away.
Badali finished with 18 points, 14 of those in the second half.
“This was unexpected,” Badali said of the loss. “But I’m proud of our season. There were some that didn’t expect us to get this far. But I’m proud of all my teammates; we left it on the floor.”
Badali will continue her career at Lewis University in Romeoville.
A Good Run
Newell said the adversity the Macs faced early in the season, including a tough schedule that forced the team to grow up quickly as it found its footing, is paying off now.
“We played some really good teams early and we’re battle tested,” Newell said after McAuley hoisted another regional championship plaque following the win over Sandburg. “We hit adversity and stuck together and the girls are amazing. They bought in, they played together and they played for each other, so I think it’s just all coming together; and you want to come together at this part of the season, so we’re happy.”
Badali, the rock of the Macs’ lineup and the lone returning starter from last season’s state runner-up team, led all scorers with 28 points, including 19 in the first half. Senior guard Alexis Mayer had scored 12 points and Janie Ternes chipped in with eight.
Badali and Mayer were the only Macs who scored in the first half, but their combined effort and a defense that got locked in after a sketchy start staked McAuley to a 29-18 halftime lead.
“We just took what they were giving us,” Newell said of having only two players score in the first 16 minutes. “Our focus every game is defense, it doesn’t mater who scores for us. Obviously, we have a tremendous scorer in Jenna Badali, but our defense really kicks off our offense, so when we’re defending well and holding [opponents] to low numbers we’re fine.”
The Eagles started the game playing with a frenetic energy and jumped out to an early 8-3 lead. Newell called a timeout to settle her team down and the Macs came out of the stoppage with a renewed focus, finishing the first quarter on a 12-0 run.
“We were getting steals from our defense, so Lex and I were just able to finish,” Badali said.
A 3-pointer by Sandburg senior guard Grace Badon brought the Eagles to within 19-16 midway through the second quarter, but McAuley once again responded, finishing the first half on a 10-2 run to take an 11-point lead into the locker room.
The Macs didn’t light up the scoreboard in the second half, but continued to fluster the Eagles with a suffocating defense that allowed only nine points in the third quarter and five over the game’s final eight minutes.
Badali said the Macs’ players who came into this season with limited varsity experience are now playing with a lot of confidence.
“I think we just realized how good we could be,” she said. “Everyone who was new at the beginning of the year, just getting the experience and the confidence that they could do whatever they needed to get the win.
“They had to step up and had big shoes to fill and they did a wonderful job.”
Sandburg, which started the season 12-2, was inconsistent the second half of the year and finished 19-12. Maggie Manthey led the Eagles with 14 points against McAuley.