No Naperville Central late heroics this time.
Neuqua Valley wasn't having it.
Najee Smith scored 21 points, twin sister Malia Smith 13 and No. 2 seed Neuqua exacted a measure of revenge for a 1-point December loss in dominating fashion with a 58-40 win over the No. 3 Redhawks in Tuesday's Class 4A Oswego sectional semifinal.
“Neuqua played really well,” Naperville Central coach Andy Nussbaum said. “Najee, wow, she was outstanding. That was a very different team than the one we played in December.”
Advancing to its first sectional final since 2004, Neuqua (27-3) will meet eight-time defending sectional champ Bolingbrook, a 59-28 winner over Romeoville Tuesday.
There will be no shortage of emotion or motivation Thursday. Three Bolingbrook kids played for Neuqua last year before transferring.
“It will definitely be an emotional game,” Najee Smith said. “We need to use it to our advantage.”
Naperville Central (25-7) beat Neuqua 48-47 on the same court in December, rallying from a 12-point halftime deficit to win on Victoria Trowbridge's last-second free throw. Then last Thursday the Redhawks stormed back from 15 down to stun Benet.
On this night, though, Neuqua closed the first quarter on a 9-2 run to go ahead 16-9, finished the half on an 11-2 run to go up 34-16 and the margin never got closer than 13 in the second half.
“Just like the first game and the Benet game we let it get away from us a little bit,” Nussbaum said. “This time they weren't giving anything back.”
Malia Smith missed the second half of the first meeting with a head injury; this time an injury hindered Naperville Central.
Senior Jamie Cuny hurt her shoulder on a scrum for a loose ball with 1:54 left in the first quarter and the Redhawks trailing 12-9, and by the time she returned with 4:20 left in the third the Redhawks were down 39-22.
Nussbaum wouldn't use it as an excuse. His team struggled mightily against Neuqua's swarming ball pressure, turning it over 21 times in the first half. Trowbridge didn't get a shot off until eight seconds left in the half.
“We did not handle their pressure even remotely close to as well as we wanted to,” Nussbaum said. “Losing Cuny hurt, but they just outplayed us.”
“We did a good job of pressuring their guards,” Neuqua coach Mike Williams said, “and we told Bryce (Menendez), 'You have one job, and that's to make it tough on (Trowbridge).' And Bryce stepped up.”
Malia and Najee Smith spearheaded Neuqua's pressure with 5 steals apiece, and Najee Smith continued her torrid postseason shooting.
Following up a 15-point outing against Metea, Smith scored 15 of her 21 in the first half, knocking down three 3s. Her first 3 gave Neuqua the lead for good midway through the first quarter.
“I've worked on my shooting a lot the last year,” Smith said. “I don't know what to say. I surprise myself some times.”
Allison Hedrick added 8 points and 9 rebounds and Menendez 6 points and 7 rebounds. Shannon Ryan and Cierra Stanciel paced Naperville Central with 11 and 10 points, respectively. Trowbridge added 8 and 10 rebounds.
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