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Navarro, Poulakidas step up in Neuqua Valley's regional win over Downers North

When it comes down to it, a basketball team has to have players like Zoe Navarro and Tia Poulakidas if it hopes to win in the IHSA Class 4A playoffs.

When Downers Grove North locked down in the second half Thursday on Neuqua Valley's two leading scorers, juniors Caitlin Washington and Kylee Norkus (both averaging 16 points per game), Navarro and Poulakidas stepped into those big shoes and held serve.

The result was a 41-27 regional final victory for the Wildcats, their first since 2016. They improved to 21-10 and will face Benet in the Class 4A West Aurora sectional semifinal at 6 p.m. Tuesday.

"They are very good at driving, so (Downers North) collapsed on them, so it gave us open shots, and when they were closing out hard you've got to protect that defensive drive, and so I think that we did that really well," said Navarro, who finished with 11 points and 3 rebounds.

Added Poulakidas, who checked in with 7 points and 5 rebounds: "If you pick one person to guard the toughest, obviously that opens everyone else. Teams, if they want to beat us, they've got to find a way to lock us all down and that's pretty tough to do."

And how. Poulakidas's three-pointer from the left corner keyed a 9-2 run for the Wildcats out of the gate. She also started the second half with a layup off an inbound and then another on an assist from Norkus.

Navarro, meanwhile, added a three-point play early in the fourth quarter that essentially put the Trojans away by increasing the score to 33-21. She also added the final two free throws to set the final score.

"Tia and Zoe were the keys tonight," Neuqua Valley coach Mike Williams said. "That's what's nice about this team. It can be anyone on any given night. Makes me look good."

Downers North's leading scorer, junior Kaitlyn Parker, came into the contest averaging 15 ppg, but she had to fight to get her 9 points, though she had 9 rebounds as well. Williams had a specific game plan for her.

"We knew that she likes to go to the right, she's a right-handed kid," he said. "She wants to get it done. She drives to the basket. Her and (senior Maggie Fleming) and (senior Violet Mitchell) are great shooters. Like anything else, you have to make them uncomfortable."

A tough loss indeed for Downers North, but after the last game of their high school careers, Fleming and Mitchell reflected on what it all meant, considering they've been friends since preschool and played together on the same teams growing up - park district, club and AAU.

"Learning how to be a good teammate and have a good support system and team," Fleming said. "I think that's what basketball has taught me."

Added Mitchell: "I've had one of the deepest relationships with people because of basketball. It's not just about the sport."