SERENA – The large step the Serena Huskers took Monday night toward a fourth consecutive regular-season Little Ten Conference championship may not have been pretty, but the plaque their effort might bring still would be every bit as shiny.
In a showdown with fellow conference unbeaten Newark that resulted in a 31-29 victory by Serena, the Huskers used a 12-2 run spanning the second half to take command, then got two clutch free throws from senior Paisley Twait with 8.6 seconds remaining to clinch it.
The victory gives Serena (19-8 overall, 8-0 LTC) at least a share of the LTC crown with one conference game remaining Monday at IMSA. Meanwhile, Newark (18-6, 7-1) has a trip to Earlville on Monday on its conference schedule.
“Getting a conference championship, at least for now a share of it, is a big deal,” Serena coach Jim Jobst said. “It’s four in a row, and they don’t want to break the streak, so this game means a lot to them. Any game with Newark is going to be intense, so we knew this would be ugly, like the first game we played them a few weeks ago. When both teams play defense like that, it’s gonna be that kind of game.
“The first half was a little shaky, but we always talk about winning the third quarter, and they came out, did that (13-5) to get the lead into the fourth quarter. From there it was just us hanging on.”
Seven points in the first half by Newark’s Addi Ness and 12 Serena turnovers helped the visitors to leads of 7-6 early in the second quarter and 13-9 at the half.
A jumper in the lane and a free throw by Kiara Wesseh, the latter with 5:55 on the third quarter clock, gave the Norsemen a 16-12 edge.
But that’s where the Huskers started cashing in, using its 27-15 rebounding edge to negate its 24 turnovers on the night. Scores by Makayla McNally and Macy Mahler knotted the game at 20. Later, Twait hit a free throw and Mahler rebounded the second-shot miss, leading to a huge 3-pointer from the right corner by Jenna Setchell for a 20-16 lead for the hosts.
Setchell and Reese Cole each made two baskets to cap the scoring burst for a 24-18 advantage.
A free throw and a 3-pointer by Brooklyn Hatteberg to Newark within two, but a Setchell basket off another Mahler rebound and a 3 from Jaiden Mahler with 3:02 left gave the Huskers a 29-25 lead.
The free throws at 8.6 seconds by Twait, who learned only that morning she’d be able to play on an ailing knee, made a last-second basket by Taylor Kruser moot.
“I’ve had a couple of free throws in situations like that before, like against Seneca, so I’ve been practicing them a lot more,” Twait said. “I didn’t want to let my team down again. If I’m at the line, I need to make them, so it was, ‘just put the ball over the rim,’ and I did.
“I’m glad we roughed that one out, and it’s exciting, but now we have to take care of business at IMSA. Going back to back to back to back sounds really good to us.”
Hatteberg led the Norsemen with nine points, while Ness added seven points and seven rebounds and Wesseh seven points in the loss.
“We struggled to score tonight like we have all year,” Newark coach Glenn Clausel said. “Give Serena credit. They play a tough man-to-man that you don’t see a lot in Class 1A. We don’t shoot the ball real well, so we pressure the ball a lot and try to get steals, get some easy baskets off those. Tonight we created tons of turnovers. We just can’t convert them. This bunch of girls are the sweetest things in this world, they get along well and they play so hard for me, but this group just doesn’t score.
“It’s pass, pass, pass. We have to find some scoring other than off our press. That’s all there is to it.”