Allison Hedrick wants people to know that Neuqua Valley belongs among the better teams out there.
This was a good start, even without a good start.
Hedrick and the No. 5-ranked Wildcats spotted No. 3 Wheaton Warrenville South a 12-point first-half lead Tuesday in Naperville, then roared back for a 55-48 win.
"We knew what this game meant to us," said Hedrick, who scored 9 of her 12 points in the second half. "A lot of people doubt what we can do. We want to prove to them that we're a Neuqua team that can play ball."
In fact Neuqua's only loss this year is a 1-pointer to Naperville Central. A tougher January schedule with the likes of WW South, Metea Valley, Fremd and Trinity will give the Wildcats (17-1) ample opportunity to prove themselves.
Big-game jitters perhaps got to Neuqua early, but true to form Mike Williams' kids just kept playing. He couldn't avoid talking about the importance of this game to his team.
"We need a game like this at this time of the year," Williams said. "I thought we were tight as a drum early on, and they're a very good team and they have a great guard."
WW South (14-3) came in riding a 13-game win streak but not near 100 percent health.
In the last two weeks Diamond Thompson (torn meniscus) and even coach Rob Kroehnke, who broke his fibula in Wisconsin over the holidays, joined the Tigers' list of walking wounded.
Still WW South broke out to a 17-8 lead after a quarter behind Sierra Bisso's 9 first-quarter points. When Bisso rolled in a jumper with 1:48 left in the first half, the margin was at 27-15.
In a pivotal turn of events, though, Neuqua finished the half with a 10-0 run in the last minute. WW South, which made Neuqua's pressure pay for early baskets, committed a costly 11 turnovers in the second quarter.
"The last three minutes of the first half we kind of let the tempo change," said WW South assistant coach Shelley Thompson. "We let it get away from us. We kind of lost focus."
A Najee Smith 3-pointer started Neuqua's comeback, and Smith threw in another 3 as time expired in the half.
Neuqua's run eventually ballooned to 27-7 and a 42-34 lead on a Myia Starks off-balance shot in transition.
"Najee did a great job keeping us in the game," Williams said, "and all of a sudden the other girls started to ride her coattails. That last minute of the first half changed the whole complexion of the game."
Malia Smith's transition basket tied it to start the second half, and Malia Smith's baseline jumper with 4:08 left in the third gave the Wildcats their first lead at 33-32.
Neuqua went to the offensive boards much harder in the second half, and its physical, run-and-jump pressure clearly caught up with WW South. Hedrick and Bryce Mendendez, who scored 6 of her 10 points after the break, both attacked the boards hard. Menendez's stickback basket capped a 7-2 run to start the fourth quarter.
Najee Smith scored 12 points, Malia Smith 9 and Starks 7 for Neuqua.
Bisso scored 16 for WW South, Meghan Waldron had 15 points and 11 rebounds and Melinda Franke 8 points and 12 boards. Down three injured players, the Tigers have some complementary kids getting much more time.
"This will only be a loss if we don't learn from it," Thompson said. "Those kids, they need to learn from this experience because we're going to see this kind of pressure down the road."
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