Girls basketball: Nazareth makes plays in fourth quarter to top Lyons in sectional semi

Olivia Austin, Stella Sakalas come up big for Roadrunners in final period

Nazareth's Olivia Austin

CHICAGO – Senior Olivia Austin and her Nazareth Academy girls basketball teammates may be new to Class 4A this postseason, but one thing hasn’t changed.

With four returning starters from the defending Class 3A state champions, the Roadrunners have a wealth of experience in pressure situations such as crunch time Tuesday against rival Lyons Township in the Class 4A Mother McAuley Sectional semifinal.

“Everyone was just focusing on staying calm. We knew LT’s a very talented team. We knew we had to focus in on defense and really try to care for the ball,” Austin said. “I think that our team chemistry is off the charts. Literally, every player plays for each other like we’re sisters.”

With the game tied, Austin and sophomore Stella Sakalas scored the first nine points of the fourth quarter and Nazareth held on for a 44-40 victory.

Nazareth (29-3), the sectional’s No. 1 seed, plays at 6 p.m. Thursday for the sectional title against Kenwood.

Austin (17 points, 7 rebounds) and Sakalas (16 points with two 3-pointers) were the Roadrunners’ leading scorers and had 13 of Nazareth’s 15 fourth-quarter points along with Amalia Dray’s lone basket.

Danielle Scully grabbed 10 rebounds and Allia Von Schlegall had four points including a 3-pointer.

The Roadrunners have won 19 straight since losing Dec. 29 on an overtime buzzer beater to nationally ranked IMG Academy at the Tampa Bay Christmas Invite where they won their other two contests.

Before Tuesday, they won their previous seven games by at least 20 points.

“I thought the momentum changed late third quarter and I believe firmly that our strength of schedule and our two years of going downstate before this [in 3A helped],” Nazareth coach Eddie Stritzel said. “Whether right or wrong, we felt we had to prepare them with what I thought was the toughest schedule in Illinois and I thought it won the game for us.

“We made play after play down the stretch, important plays.”

Besides her points, Austin had two fourth-quarter steals and a huge offensive rebound after a teammates’ missed free throw. Austin was fouled and made 1 of 2 free throws for a 42-37 lead with 57 seconds left.

Sakalas added two more free throws with 26.1 seconds left.

The Lions made a late 3-pointer.

“It was very fortunate that we got that rebound. It boosted our morale when a ball that technically should be theirs ends up in our possession,” Austin said.

“Without Olivia, we would have lost and that’s the honest truth,” Sakalas said. “She’s just a scorer, a defender. Anything, you can count on Liv.”

No. 5 Lyons (20-12) came into the game having won its third straight regional.

Junior Nora Ezike had 15 points and 12 rebounds for the Lions. Elin O’Brien (10 points with two 3s), Kennedy Wanless (10 rebounds), Emma O’Brien (7 points), Gwen Smith (5 points) and Avery Mezan (3 assists) also contributed.

“I thought [Ezike] attacked the basket well. The zone couldn’t stop her,” Lyons coach Meghan Hutchens said. “We knew we could fight and beat them as long as we put together four quarters. We had a few too many mistakes in the third we couldn’t quite climb out of but I give credit to the girls.”

Lyons outrebounded Nazareth 18-10 in the first half and led 23-21 after being up as much as five.

The Roadrunners took their first lead since the early minutes at 25-24 in the third quarter after a turnaround shot by Austin but then went scoreless the next three minutes.

Ezike free throws put Lyons in front 29-26 but Sakalas hit a game-tying 3 just before the end of the period.

Sakalas, a key sub last year, is the new starter. She’s recovered well from surgery in late April for a torn right labrum.

“Last year, being sixth man, it was kind of go in for whoever needs the first rest,” Sakalas said. “This year, starting, people are counting on you. You’ve got to get your role done.”