April 21, 2024
Illinois High School Sports

Girls basketball: Nazareth pulls away from Waubonsie Valley, advances to IHSA Class 4A state championship game

Amalia Dray scores 22 points and Olivia Austin 16 in 69-44 semifinal win

Nazareth Academy’s Mary Bridget Wilson works against Waubonsie Valley’s Arianna Garcia Friday, March 1, 2024 in the girls basketball 4A state semifinal at CEFCU Arena in Normal.

NORMAL – After winning the Class 3A state championship last season, Nazareth has been on a mission to double its pleasure.

The Roadrunners beefed up their schedule, including playing in an elite tournament in Florida, to prepare for the jump to Class 4A.

All season long, the Roadrunners have been laser-focused on their goal.

And it showed throughout Friday’s Class 4A state semifinal against Waubonsie Valley, especially in their returnees.

With just under five minutes left in regulation, Nazareth senior point guard Mary Bridget Wilson illustrated her team’s focus. Dribbling the ball up the court against man-to-man pressure, Wilson failed to hear her coach call a timeout. Instead, she kept slowly moving the ball up the court, even while her teammates were walking toward the bench.

That prompted Nazareth coach Eddie Stritzel, normally intense during games, to walk a few steps onto the court and smile at Wilson’s – known as “MB” – ability to tune out the crowd and whistle.

“We called timeout and ‘MB” is still breaking press,” Stritzel said, smiling. “I always talk to her about breaking press, and here ‘MB’ was breaking press after a timeout was called. She had no clue what was going on.”

Indeed, the Roadrunners were focused – and in control – throughout the state semifinal.

Nazareth is one game away from a repeat state title, defeating Waubonsie Valley 69-44 victory in a 4A state semifinal at CEFCU Arena. Nazareth, which has reached the state tournament in five of the last six postseasons, rode big games from seniors Amalia Dray and Olivia Austin and sophomore Stella Sakalas. The Roadrunners’ frontcourt consistently beat the Warriors down the court for layups or putbacks to wear them down.

“We always stress running the break because we have a lot of experience on this court,” Austin said. “We just focused on rim running. We got back on defense, crashed the boards and ran the break.”

Nazareth Academy’s Amalia Dray puts in a shot against Waubonsie Valley Friday, March 1, 2024 in the girls basketball 4A state semifinal at CEFCU Arena in Normal.

Dray, a Boston College soccer recruit, opened up the inside for Austin and Danielle Scully to operate by shooting 6-for-12 on 3-pointers for 22 points and three assists. Austin, a Dartmouth signee, poured in 16 points to go with eight rebounds and three assists and Sakalas finished with 15 points on 6-of-9 shooting. The Roadrunners (32-3) advance for an opportunity at a historic repeat across two classes in back-to-back seasons, when they face Loyola in Saturday’s state championship game at 7:45 p.m.

Scully had a monster two-way game with nine points, six boards and six assists but Dray’s hot shooting was a big X-factor for the Roadrunners.

“I’ve been working on my shot a lot this season, so just coming into this game and tomorrow, I’ve been specially on my shot on peaking today and tomorrow,” Dray said. “My team did a great job of finding me when I was hitting. Everybody did a great job of passing the ball around to find me an open shot.”

Waubonsie Valley (32-4) fell into a 25-point hole, possessing the lead for just under two minutes. The Warriors were outscored 36-16 in the paint and gave up 12 points off turnovers, while scoring just four points in the fourth quarter. Sophomore guard Danyella Mporokoso scored a team-high 16 points and senior guard Hannah Laub had 15 points, including three 3-pointers.

The Roadrunners showed no problems playing up a level in the 4A semifinal, opening the first quarter with barrage of threes to seize a 16-12 lead. Dray buried a deep 3 to push the lead to 21-12 in the opening minutes of the second quarter, then canned another deep shot to kick a late run that gave the Roadrunners a 27-19 lead.

Scully said the Roadrunners took advantage of their multiple players capable of playing different positions.

“Me and Olivia and Stella can play either position on the floor and can change up the plays because we know each spot on the play,” Scully said.

A strong and physical player, Austin was too much for the Warriors to handle in the paint. The three-sport athlete scored on a three-point putback to finish with nine points and four rebounds to stake Nazareth to a 30-24 lead at halftime. She added another three-point play in the opening minute of the third to put Nazareth’s lead to 33-27.

Nazareth Academy’s Olivia Austin looks to put up a shot against Waubonsie Valley’s Hannah Laub Friday, March 1, 2024 in the girls basketball 4A state semifinal at CEFCU Arena in Normal.

The Roadrunners gained some additional breathing room via three from Scully, an Ohio recruit, followed by a 12-foot baseline jumper from the highly recruited Sakalas that pushed the lead to 46-34.

The Warriors, who finished with a 1-13 record in the shortened 2020-21 season, have a bright future after starting two sophomores and a freshman against the veteran-laden Roadrunners.

“We know what to expect now, so we could hopefully continue coming here in my next two years,” Mporokoso said.

Waubonsie Valley coach Brett Love praised his team for setting a new bar for his program.

“I thought we played with intensity and came out to compete,” Love said. “I thought we did a good job of controlling our pace and how we played. We had difficulties with communication and switching and things like that, which ultimately put us in a tough spot. We’re a small team. We’re not the biggest and it always hurts us when other teams get multiple opportunities to score.”

Bob Narang

Bob Narang is a contributing sports reporter to Shaw Local News Network