Andy Nussbaum looked as awestruck as anyone in the Benet gym.
“If I'm dreaming right now,” the Naperville Central coach said with a wide grin, “don't wake me up.”
Seemingly out of it down 15 in the third quarter, still trailing by 8 with two minutes left, No. 3 seed Naperville Central rallied to stun No. 6 Benet 44-42 in Thursday's final of the Class 4A Benet regional.
Jamie Cuny lobbed to Victoria Trowbridge for the go-ahead layup with 8.1 seconds left. Benet hurried it up the court, but Christen Prasse's 3-pointer for the win was too long as time expired.
The Redhawks (25-6) advance to play the Neuqua Valley-Metea Valley winner in Tuesday's sectional semifinal at Oswego. Allow them to relish this win for 24 hours.
“We were down 15 and we thought, 'We got 16 minutes left in our season, let's go out and prove to them who we are,'” Cuny said. “We hit some really key shots and we got the momentum in our favor. We went out and played out of our minds.”
For a half Benet (20-10) looked well on its way to a fifth straight regional title.
Benet rolled out to a 21-8 lead after a quarter, and it was 35-20 by halftime, the hot-shooting Redwings hitting five 3s.
But things went south from there.
Benet didn't make a basket for the first three minutes of the third quarter, went the entire fourth quarter without a field goal and made just 5 of 13 free throws. After Shannon Ryan's 3-pointer for Naperville Central tied the game 42-42 with 1:19 left, Benet missed a pair of free throws, allowing the Redhawks to hold for the last shot.
“I thought we were going to hold on, but we missed some critical free throws that we would love to have put in,” Benet coach Peter Paul said. “That would have helped us tremendously, and we're a very good free-throw shooting team. But give credit. (Naperville Central) wasn't going to die.”
As cold as Benet was, Naperville Central for a spell appeared like it would let an opportunity at a comeback go by the wayside. After Trowbridge's free throw with 7:12 left made it 40-33, the two teams both went scoreless for five minutes until Eden Olson split a pair of free throws for Benet.
But Ryan connected on a deep 3, Emily Kraft hit a 3 and after a Benet missed free throw Trowbridge kicked out to Ryan for the tying 3.
“When it was 40-33 I thought to myself, 'We just didn't make enough shots,'” Nussbaum said, “and then we started making them. As far as comeback wins go I can't think of a better one than this one.”
It's ironic that Naperville Central's biggest win came in comeback fashion. In four of the Redhawks' first five losses, they let fourth-quarter leads slip away. The shoe felt better on the other foot.
“We knew coming in how big this game was,” said Trowbridge, huge for the Redhawks at both ends with 17 points, 13 rebounds and 7 blocked shots. “Obviously, it wasn't ideal at halftime, but we knew what we had to do.”
Ryan scored 13 points for the Redhawks. Prasse, Benet's only senior starter, scored 11 points with 8 rebounds, leaving the game for more than a minute in the fourth quarter after taking a Trowbridge elbow to the head. Sophomores Emily Schramek and Emily Eshoo added 14 and 9, respectively.
“It was a game of halves,” Paul said. “They put some pressure on us and we didn't respond. Maybe that was our youth that came out.”
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