ELGIN – An attacking DePaul College Prep girls basketball team kept coming and coming at Byron at the Class 2A Elgin Community College Supersectional on Monday night. But Byron, who jumped out to a 12-4 lead and never trailed, had an answer each time in a 52-45 win.
“Yes, they were really an attacking offense and we had to weather the storm,” post player Ava Kultgen said. “The entire time, we ignored the noise, played our game and stayed calm.”
That synopsis by the senior all-state candidate summed up the fast-paced game at Elgin Community College. The closest DePaul came was within two points early in the second quarter, and then again with three minutes left in the game.
Throughout the postseason, Byron coach Eric Yerly has stressed that survival is all about defense. That was truly the case in those final three minutes, DePaul committed three turnovers and missed five of six shots.
Another significant aspect at that juncture was a new Tiger stepping up. Kultgen and freshman Macy Groharing had scored 37 of Byron’s first 43 points, but in crunch time, an outlier gave Byron a much-needed spark.
Following a missed shot by the Tigers, Karsyn Bielskis broke a 3-minute scoring drought to keep her team ahead 45-39. Four straight points got DePaul within 45-43, before Bielskis hit critical free throws on consecutive possessions for a 49-43 advantage.
“I really just knew this could be the last game for the seniors and wanted to pull it together,” Bielskis said.
Byron was also aided by the fact that DePaul’s best player, Nora Leadstrom, fouled out in that same time frame. Leadstrom, who battled Kultgen in the paint, made seven of DePaul’s first eight baskets, as the Rams (29% for the game) only shot 3- or 15 in the first quarter.
Meanwhile, the Tigers looked sharp in the opening minutes, with Kultgen, Bielskis, Groharing and Malia Morton all scoring for a 12-6 lead.
“We made a big emphasis on starting early,” Yerly said. “The more I watched game film of them, the more nervous I became. I knew this would be a tight game.”
With Groharing taking a break early in the second quarter, Byron had four quick turnovers and DePaul pulled within 14-12. After she came back in, it was all her (21 points) and Kultgen (18) keeping pace with Rams.
Kultgen made a pair of inside shots on left-side drives, and Groharing finished the quarter up with seven more points, two of which came on a nifty Kultgen assist.
“Macy’s a special player,” Yerly said. “Someone had to step up, and her and Ava did that.”
Kasey Galloway started to get hot for DePaul and scored five points to pull her team from a 10-point deficit to 26-21 at halftime.
“I thought we did a good job of attacking their 1-3-1 zone, but they killed us in transition,” DePaul coach Sarah Zarymbski said.
In the third quarter, it was another heavy dose of Groharing and Kultgen before Morton put in a layup off a steal for a 39-33 lead going into the fourth quarter.
Essentially, it was an even game throughout after Byron started with the early lead. The fourth quarter was back-and-forth until Byron took control late in the contest.
“This was the closest we’ve come in one of these,” said Zarymbski, referring to the other two supersectionals DePaul has been in.
DePaul College Prep (25-7) is a 10-year old school and was formerly known as Gordon Tech. Byron (33-2) returns to the state finals for the fourth time in school history, claiming titles in 2016 and 2017 under 12-year coach Yerly (286-86).
Byron shot 15% better from the field (44% to 29%), but rebounding, turnovers and free-throw shooting were about even. A key for the Tigers was forcing the Rams to take off-balance shots.
Byron faces Chicago Noble/Butler in the 2A semifinals at Redbird Arena at 2:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 2.