Mazza, Benet edge Neuqua Valley in regional final

With just 8.8 seconds remaining in Thursday’s Class 4A Neuqua Valley girls basketball regional final, Benet guard Aria Mazza went to the line for two of the biggest free throw attempts of her career.

At that point the Redwings led the host Wildcats by 1 point, so Mazza knew that a couple of makes might be able to ice the game.

“I just needed to take a deep breath and silence the noise,” said Mazza, a junior. “I wanted to help my team.”

And with all the pressure on, Mazza calmly swished through both foul shots to extend the lead to 3.

Benet held on in the final moments to come away with a 47-44 regional championship win.

The Redwings’ victory offset a terrific performance by Neuqua Valley senior Zoe Navarro, especially down the stretch.

Navarro scored all 8 of her team’s points in the fourth quarter, and her clutch 4-point play with just over a minute left gave the Wildcats a chance at the end.

“It’s been this way all year. We’ve had so many one-, two-, three-point games,” said Neuqua Valley coach Mike Williams.

“You can’t fault the effort of our kids tonight. They made the plays and they were right there.”

Both teams struggled in the first half from the 3-point line, going a combined 0-for-13.

So when Benet senior guard Magdalena Sularski hit 2 long 3s early in the third quarter, it gave the Redwings a big boost.

“That was sort of their game plan,” said Benet coach Joe Kilbride about Neuqua Valley. “They were trying to get out on us and push up in to us at the arc, and not let us have threes.

“They did a good job of that, but it was in transition that we were able to get a couple of clean looks.”

Benet (22-6) trailed most of the way, but rallied to take a 5-point lead midway through the final period. The Redwings will play No. 1 seed Bolingbrook at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the Oswego sectional.

“About the six-minute mark of the fourth,” said Kilbride, “we subbed and went back to our press. We had gotten out of it due to foul trouble.

“We were down at the point and we had a nice three-minute stretch, and that changed the momentum.”

Benet still led by 5 with 1:24 on the clock when Navarro sank a 3 from the corner, was fouled and converted the free throw to bring the Wildcats within 45-44.

Then after a Navarro steal, Neuqua Valley had a chance to take the lead, but Benet forced a turnover.

The Wildcats were forced to foul, and Mazza made the most of her opportunity, putting the Redwings up 47-44.

Neuqua Valley was able to rush the ball upcourt and get a 3-point attempt up with a couple of seconds left, but it clanged off the rim.

Benet senior Shannon Earley was right there to corral the rebound as the buzzer sounded.

Navarro led Neuqua Valley with 14 points while teammate Nalia Clifford scored 10.

Emma Briggs had a game-high 16 points for Benet, and Mazza added that “playing smart defense” in the final minutes led to the Redwings win.

“When other teams go on their runs,” said the junior, “our coach tells us to just stay steady and do our thing.

“That’s what we did tonight, and it feels so good. I love my teammates and everything is possible with them.”

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