SHERRARD — With its top scorer and rebounder on the bench with four fouls and staring at a 10-point second-half deficit, the Mercer County girls' basketball squad showed what it was made of.
After senior forward Karli Stineman's foul trouble forced her to the sidelines, several of her teammates filled the void in ways big and small, eventually enabling the Golden Eagles to open up a five-point lead with just over two minutes left in regulation.
When Class 2A regional host Sherrard rallied to force overtime, Stineman was there to answer the bell, teaming with fellow senior post standout Ericka Sedam to score 13 of the Eagles' 16 points in the extra period as they edged the Tigers 55-51 in a Tuesday night semifinal thriller at Harry Hunt Gymnasium.
The pair each tallied 12 points, with Stineman notching a pair of three-point plays in overtime and Sedam hitting three straight buckets to help Mercer County (21-11) open up a six-point lead en route to a regional-final showdown with top-seeded Illini West (25-4) Thursday night at 7.
"I'd struggled with foul trouble in past years, but this year, I'd done pretty well with it up until tonight," said Stineman. "This showed how much all of the girls work, and what they can do. I really feel like we feed off each other's energy."
Sedam, who had scored just one bucket after the first quarter, knew she would get her opportunity to step up in the extra session.
"I'd missed a few early on, but I had to work inside and step it up," she said. "I just had to do what I know how to do."
Trailing 24-17 at halftime, MerCo looked like a shot at its first regional championship would be denied by the reigning regional champion Tigers, who opened up a 29-19 lead after Stineman went to the bench with her fourth personal.
But with the guard duo of senior Maggie Harrison (10 points, seven rebounds, six steals) and Bella Cuellar (11 points, four rebounds, two steals) leading the way, the Eagles put the brakes on Sherrard's momentum and clawed their way back, with a Madi Finch bucket in the closing seconds capping a 10-0 run that had the teams tied at 29 going into the fourth.
"One thing this team is very good at, if someone's out in foul trouble, we can get the job done," said Cuellar, who had a key three-point play late in the third quarter that closed the gap to four. "Everyone can contribute."
Down the stretch, a 3-pointer and a pair of free throws by senior guard Lillian Hucke helped MerCo open a 37-32 lead, but a pair of Carley Whitsell buckets and then a Taylor Barber 3-pointer with 28.2 seconds left put Sherrard up 39-37.
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Again, Mercer County answered as Harrison scored with 9.4 seconds left to knot the score. The Tigers (14-15) had a shot at the win, but Barber's 3-point try drew iron and Stineman rebounded the ball as time expired.
"I thought we got the look we wanted at the end," said Sherrard coach Doug Swanson, who got 12 points from Whitsell and 11 from Barber, who added five rebounds; Sydney Adamson notched a game-high 15 points for the regional hosts, nine coming in overtime.
Illini West 51, Rockridge 27: A 16-0 fourth-quarter run sent the Chargers on their way to Thursday night's title game and ended the Rockets' season at 14-17.
Down by 13 at halftime, Rockridge clawed its way back to 35-27 going into the final period behind a pair of 3-pointers from Madison Heisch (12 points). However, six turnovers in the final eight minutes and IW's guard duo of Karli Artman (24 points, six steals) and Caydee Kirkham (21 points, eight rebounds) were too much to overcome.
"That team can come up with some big shots at big moments, and they did a good job of that," said Rockridge coach Ryan McDonald. "But, I thought our whole team made a lot of progress through the season, and our entire starting five will be back. We've got something special here, we just have to recognize it."
Stillman Valley Regional
Second half carries Riverdale to regional title game: Trailing by two points at halftime, the Riverdale Rams made the correct adjustments on both ends of the court to race to a 39-31 victory over Mendota and into Thursday’s Class 2A Stillman Valley Regional title game against the host club.
Brooke Smeltzly scored all 13 of her points in the final 16 minutes as the Rams held the Lady Trojans (21-11) to just 12 points.
“We did a much better job of executing on offense and we made some shots,” said Riverdale coach Jay Hatch after his fourth-ranked Rams moved to 24-3. “We had a run where we got four fast-break baskets and that really relaxed us a little bit.”
Another key was the defense Lauren Lodico led on Mendota standout Amellia Bromenschenkel, who was held to 21 points.
“Defense as a team really played well,” said Hatch. “It may not look like it, but holding her to 21 was a great job; she had 43 in a game last Wednesday.”
Thursday’s title tilt is a rematch of a nonconference game from early January. In that one, the Lady Trojans handed the Rams a 42-39 overtime loss.
Tuesday’s victory was the first for the Rams in three games in which they scored 39 points this season, according to Hatch.