Hersey's comeback falls short in state semifinals

NORMAL -- Hersey girls basketball coach Mary Fendley made a slight mistake on Friday afternoon.

Coaching in her second-to-last game of her illustrious 25-year career, Fendley broke the huddle well over a minute too soon before the start of the fourth quarter in a Class 4A state semifinal against O'Fallon.

"The timeouts at state are definitely long, almost three minutes," Fendley said, smiling.

Fendley, in just her third career game at state and slated to retire after this weekend, quickly recovered by returning back to the huddle to provide instruction for her players.

The Huskies almost nearly recovered too.

Despite a valiant effort in the fourth quarter, the Huskies couldn't give Fendley a fairy-tale ending with a state championship. The Panthers pulled away in the middle of the fourth quarter to record a 77-60 victory over the Huskies at Illinois State University's CEFCU Arena.

Senior forward Meghan Mrowicki, a Notre Dame soccer recruit, rode a strong start to a stellar day, shooting 10 of 16 from the field for a team-high 22 points. She added 9 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals and blocked a shot. Senior guard Katy Eidle, a four-year starter, shot 5-of-10 on 3-pointers to end with 17 points for the Huskies (28-9).

"It's the last two games of my career, at least playing basketball, and I wanted to leave everything on the court," Mrowicki said.

Fendley, an IBCA Hall of Fame inductee, admitted she enjoyed ending her coaching career at the state tournament. Fendley, who has a 537-229 record at Hersey, ended a long drought since her last trip to state, when the Huskies snagged a fourth-place finish in 2010.

"I'm just so proud of this group, and I'm happy they could get recognized," Fendley said. "Our goal was to get to state. Everything else is cherry on the top. Few teams get to end out on a win. That's our goal. Win or lose, it won't take away how special this team is and what it means for us to get down here."

The Panthers (33-4) had four players in double figures, with senior guard Shannon Dowell (30 points), Jailah Pelly (16 points), Josie Christopher (15 points) and D'Myjah Bolds (11) accounting for the bulk of the scoring. O'Fallon's interior height and ability to dribble penetrate put tremendous pressure on the Huskies' defense.

"We worked very hard to get here and we knew we had the pieces," O'Fallon coach Nick Knolhoff said. "We're so deadly in the open court. We have such balanced scoring and anybody can show up at any given night. We had Malia (Robertston) faceguard Eidle. She did a fantastic job on Eidle. She did her job perfectly."

Throughout her 25-year journey building Hersey to a marquee program in Chicagoland, Fendley had the luxury to lean on assistant coach Julia Barthel. Fendley and Barthel, who also serves as Hersey's athletic director, forged a memorable bond together running the Huskies' program. Both are slated to retire from coaching.

Dressed in all-black, Fendley said she was proud of her coaching career, which included 10 Mid-Suburban League East Division titles, four MSL championships, 14 regional plaques and a fourth-place medal in 2010.

"We had a phenomenal group this year," Fendley said. "We have a very special team with great people. I'm glad they got recognized."

The Huskies, who defeated highly ranked Libertyville, Fremd and Maine South in their last three games, weren't able to duplicate the same magic against the talented and deep Panthers.

Eidle, a Michigan recruit, was hounded all game long. The senior guard had trouble finding any open looks on offense, attempting just three shots in the first 11 points as the Huskies fell into an early 31-16 hole.

The 6-foot Eidle, who averages 19.3 points per game and lit up the scoreboard for 32 points against Libertyville, scored her first basket, a 3-pointer, with 1:30 left in the first quarter. Eidle, a 2023 Association Press All-State First-Team selection, splashed home a corner 3-pointer to trim the deficit to 31-21 midway through the second quarter.

"We have one more game left, and want to end our season with a win," Eidle said of playing in the third-place game.

Christopher, a freshman guard, wasn't bothered by the bright lights nor the big crowd at state, connecting on four of her first six 3-point attempts for 12 points to give the Panthers a 35-25 lead at halftime.

The Panthers had a prolific first half, shooting 5-for-10 on 3s and limiting the high-voltage Eidle to 8 points. Playing point guard, Eidle showed off her big-game unflappable personality, stealing a pass and burying a top-of-the-key 3-pointer in transition to slice the deficit to 47-39 with 4:10 remaining in the third. Christopher sank other deep 3 to push the lead to 50-39, but Eidle, off a pass from Mrowicki, hit a 3-pointer to bring the margin down to 52-44.

A minute later, Mrowicki banked a circus shot fading away from seven feet, Sabrina DiVito buried an 16-footer and KiKi Craft stole a pass and scored on a lay-in at the third-quarter buzzer to bring the Huskies to within seven (57-50).

The Huskies attempted to copy the same format from their scintillating comeback win over Maine South, slicing the margin to 57-55 early in the fourth quarter following baskets by Mrowicki and Annika Manthy (6 points, 5 rebounds). But Pelly scored seven straight points in a three-possession span to lift the lead to 64-55. A few minutes later, Eidle answered with a 3-pointer to cut the deficit to 69-60 with 2:12 left but O'Fallon kept the pesky Huskies from getting any closer.

"Give O'Fallon credit, I think they were so solid, even when we played catchup, they had a counter," Fendley said. "I think the world of O'Fallon."

Hersey's Katy Eidle tries to get a shot up over an O'Fallon's defender Friday, March 3, 2023, in their Class 4A state semifinal in CEFCU Arena at Illinois State University in Normal. Mark Busch/
Hersey's Natalie Alesia (left) and Katy Eidle go after a rebound late in their game against O'Fallon Friday, March 3, 2023, during their Class 4A state semifinal in CEFCU Arena at Illinois State University in Normal. Mark Busch/
Hersey's Meghan Mrowicki shoots over O'Fallon's D'Myjah Bolds Friday, March 3, 2023, in their Class 4A state semifinal in CEFCU Arena at Illinois State University in Normal. Mark Busch/
Hersey's Mackenzie Ginder reaches for a loss ball over O'Fallon's Jailah Pelly Friday, March 3, 2023, in their Class 4A state semifinal in CEFCU Arena at Illinois State University in Normal. Mark Busch/
The Hersey bench watches as the final seconds tick away Friday, March 3, 2023, in their Class 4A state semifinal loss to O'Fallon in CEFCU Arena at Illinois State University in Normal. Mark Busch/
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