NORMAL – Ask Geneva junior guard Stephanie Hart what it takes to win a state championship and she’ll tell you you’ve got to have heart.
Geneva had a lot of heart and Hart when it mattered most.
Hart scored on a putback with four seconds remaining and center Grace Loberg stole the ball as time expired as the Vikings upset previously unbeaten Edwardsville 41-40 to win the Class 4A state championship March 4 at Redbird Arena.
It is the first state title in program history for Geneva (29-4), which also won its semifinal game on a basket with four ticks left when junior guard Margaret Whitley banked in a six-footer to beat Fremd 34-33.
“I think our heart just pushed us through,” Hart said. “We won last night and this is the first time a Geneva basketball team has gone into the championship and we knew we had to win. This is our year and we knew it.”
It nearly wasn’t. The Vikings squandered a nine-point lead in the first half but led throughout a tense second half until the Tigers went up 40-39 on a layup by Rachel Pranger with 23 seconds remaining.
Whitley missed a shot from the right side of the lane, but the 5-foot-8 Hart came up with her only offensive rebound of the game and scored. It was the first game-winning shot of her prep career.
“I had [a game-winning basket] in eighth grade,” Hart said. “It was a long time ago.
“I saw someone shoot it and then it slipped through Grace’s hand and it landed right in my hands. I knew there wasn’t a lot of time left and I knew girls were going to start coming at me, so I knew I had to toss it up just how Margaret did last game.
“It had to go in and it did, and I was so thankful.”
But there was still some drama left.
The Tigers called timeout with 1.9 seconds to go. They threw the inbound pass to half court, where the 6-2 Loberg snatched it and held on.
“Maddy [Yelle] deflected it with her hands and I was not going to let them get the ball and get a shot up,” Loberg said. “None of us were going to let that happen.”
That Loberg would have the ball in her hands at the end was fitting, as the two-sport star, who will play volleyball at Wisconsin, has done so much for the Vikings throughout her career. But how she got the ball was ironic as she is known for scoring and rebounding.
Loberg led Geneva in both categories, finishing with 17 points and 10 rebounds, but she also had four steals.
“This is the best,” Loberg said. “This is a dream come true.”
It was a dream Hart had a hard time believing would be realized after her basket.
“We’ve been talking about this since fifth grade, so in my head it was so surreal,” said Hart, who had 11 points. “I knew we still had time on the clock so the game wasn’t over, but we were up and we could win it.
“We were so close to winning it and they weren’t going to take it from us.”
Southern Illinois recruit Makenzie Silvey led Edwardsville with 17 points, while Pranger added 11 points and 10 rebounds. But they couldn’t deny the Vikings, who made up for a lack of star power with a special bond that jelled into an unbreakable cohesiveness.
“Every part of our team has been together since fifth grade,” Hart said. “It definitely means a lot more because we know what’s going on, so we can work with each other and I think that really gives us a step up off the other teams.”
Geneva coach Sarah Meadows, whose team won its last 15 games, agreed.
“When I say our kids get along, really that’s half the battle in girls basketball,” Meadows said. “To get girls to really genuinely like each other and almost love each other is half the battle and these kids go to battle every night for each other.”
That sent Loberg, the only senior starter, out a winner in her final basketball game.
“It means so much,” Loberg said. “We knew how much was at stake.
“We knew that every Geneva team that has come here has gotten fourth place, which is still amazing, but we wanted to make history and we wanted to be remembered at this school. We couldn’t have done it without our fans and our coaches. They were amazing.”