Wheaton North pulls away from Lake Park in 2nd half

Despite only returning to the starting lineup Tuesday, Wheaton North senior guard Caroline Gaither isn't playing tentative basketball.

Gaither was able to be more assertive offensively Thursday after the Falcons were tied at halftime of the Class 4A Hoffman Estates regional final against DuKane Conference rival Lake Park.

"(Wheaton North coach Dave Eaton) was just trying to motivate me a little bit in the locker room, just to get after it, because I did only take one shot in the first half," Gaither said. "He was saying for us to keep building our momentum."

Only nine seconds into the third quarter, Gaither's driving layup gave the Falcons the lead for good and further momentum toward a 44-28 victory.

No. 2-seed Wheaton North (21-7) beat the No. 7 Lancers (15-14) for the third time this season to advance to Tuesday's Bartlett sectional semifinal against another DuKane opponent - No. 3 Batavia (18-14) or No. 6 St. Charles North (18-12).

Senior Claire Hyde, Wheaton North's all-time leading scorer, had 17 points with 10 rebounds, and freshman Sara Abdul had 12 points. Gaither (seven points) and senior guard Lindsey Shanahan (six points) did all of their scoring in the second half.

"Gaither had a great wide-open layup and that kind of set the tone for the rest of the half," Hyde said. "It's not just us seniors who stepped up. I think everybody stepped up. I know we've been here before (as seniors) so we had to be leaders to the younger kids and they responded to the call for sure."

Wheaton North cut a 15-11 deficit to 15-15 by halftime and outscored Lake Park 16-5 in the third quarter for a 31-20 advantage. The Lancers closed to 34-24 with 5:11 left.

Lake Park was led by junior Michaela Barbanente's 12 points and 10 rebounds. Senior Gabi Burgess had six points and senior Sara Balli and junior Madeine Mintrup five points apiece.

"Lake Park is so talented offensively. I felt right at the end (of the first half) we took the momentum back and that was huge," Eaton said. "We talked to Gaither at half and just said it's the time to step up. They were sort of sagging off her and I thought she had a huge third quarter."

Gaither was sidelined nearly two months with a stress fracture in her right foot. Two weeks ago, she rejoined the lineup and gradually saw her playing time increase. Gaither and Hyde are the Falcons' only varsity regulars remaining from the 2020 team, which lost at Hoffman Estates to Geneva in the sectional semifinals. There was no 2021 postseason.

"That's what Claire and I were talking about all of this week. We knew we just had to come back (to Hoffman Estates) and get redemption," Gaither said.

Both teams displayed their trademark tough defense. The Lancers turned an 8-2 deficit into a 12-8 lead. They pulled ahead 15-11 on a Balli three but then went scoreless the final 4:23 of the second quarter. Add the Falcons' defense and shots not falling most the third quarter and the Lancers only scored a Mintrup three in nearly 10 minutes.

"Our defensive game plan went really well, until they got the lead. It's not like we didn't have (offensive) opportunities. They just didn't go in," Lake Park coach Brian Rupp said. "But we never lack fight. We had a bunch of fight tonight and some people stepped up with the injuries we had."

Lake Park lost starter Grace Cord at practice Saturday (broken fibula) and Lexi Szostak (ACL) on Senior Night. Cord had a team-high 14 points in the second meeting with the Falcons.

The Falcons' multi-possession gap allowed them to run their offense and the clock.

"That's why you need a shot clock ... when you can hold the basketball 2 1/2 minutes. But credit to them. They got the job done that way," Rupp said.

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