BLOOMINGTON – Being nervous in the face of attempting to win a championship is perfectly natural for any sports team. El Paso Gridley’s girls basketball team, seeded 7th and preparing to face top seed Eureka for the girls’ championship game title in the annual Heart Of Illinois Conference/McLean County Tournament, could be forgiven for some jitters prior to tipoff considering the opponent.

But although those pre-game jitters stretched into the first quarter making the Lady Titans’ task tougher, they managed a comeback only to fall by just four points to the top-seeded Lady Hornets, 41-37, before a crowd of roughly 2,500 fans at Shirk Center on Illinois Wesleyan University’s campus.

Only two Lady Titans – senior guard Jaycie Schertz and junior center Sierra Carr, respectfully – managed to score baskets in the first quarter, Carr’s bucket cutting Eureka’s lead to two very early in the quarter. But that was all the scoring the Lady Titans could muster in the period as Eureka senior guard Courtney Heffren responded with a basket that would be the first in a 6-0 run thanks to two back-to-back unanswered scores by senior guard Amy Pineda, which put the Lady Hornets up, 12-4, en route to an 18-4 lead to close out the first quarter.

Eureka’s Heffren and EPG junior guard Addison Benedict exchanged baskets to open the second quarter giving the Lady Hornets a 20-6 lead at 5:12 in the second quarter. Heffren would score twice more and add a free throw, increasing Eureka’s lead, 25-6, before EPG would close out the half on a run of their own thanks to freshman guard Jordyn Cannon’s bucket and free throw followed by Carr’s half-ending basket. The two sides went into the half with Eureka owning a 25-11.

Having established an idea of how the other side plays during the first half, the third quarter began with fouls and free throws, starting with Cannon going 1-for-2 at the line having been fouled by Eureka senior forward Lauren Ausmus. That closed Eureka’s lead, 25-12. But Ausmus went to the line herself sinking two shots after being fouled by Schertz, putting Eureka up, 27-12. Schertz got fouled almost as quickly by Lady Hornets senior guard Morgan Greene, and sank two free throws, closing Eureka’s lead, 27-15 with four minutes in the quarter.

Back-to-back unanswered treys after that from Benedict and senior guard Ashlyn Stone helped EPG come within six, 27-21 with 2:34 left in the quarter. The two treys forced Eureka head coach Jerry Prina to call for a time out. EPG would pull within three, 27-24, thanks to a free throw and a free throw by Stone, again prompting Prina to call another timeout with 10.8 second left in the quarter.

Heffren opened the fourth quarter with a deuce with 6:40 left in the contest and Carr countered for EPG to keep the Lady Titans within three, 29-26, followed by Farney and Ausmus hitting back-to-back unanswered deuces which extended the Lady Hornets’ lead, 33-26, with 5:30 left. Two free throws and a basket by Cannon followed by two free throws by Schertz gave EPG a 6-0 run and brought the Lady Titans as close as they would get on the evening – one point, 33-32 before a deuce by Ausmus would extend the Lady Hornets’ lead back to three, 35-32, at the game’s 3:24 mark. At that point, Lady Titans head coach Nate Ehrhardt called time out. Following the timeout, EPG’s Stone fouled Ausmus, who sank two free shots, increasing Eureka’s lead, 39-34 with 1:54 left.

Right after, Eureka junior guard Darby Leman fouled Cannon who missed both free throws. Eureka’s Greene, having been fouled by Stone, also missed her free throw try. EPG called time out with 38.6 seconds remaining. Eureka head coach Prina called time out, as well, with 34.9 seconds remaining.

Coming out of that time out, Stone fouled Eureka’s Ausmus, sending her to the free throw line where she hit both shots, adding to her team’s lead, 41-34, with 9 seconds remaining. But a trey from Stone with 1.9 seconds remaining would turn out to be the last shot on the night, giving the Lady Titans second place in the tournament.

Although there were no Lady Titans in double-figures, Carr led her team’s scoring with 9 points. She was followed by Stone, Cannon, and Benedict who each sank 7 points. Eureka’s Heffren had a game-high 17 points, followed by Ausmus’ 12.

“At the start of the second quarter, we just asked our girls to settle down,” Ehrhardt said. “They were just a little excited and nervous. We got a little careless with the ball in the first quarter. But once they settled into the game and taking their time being careful with the basketball, that’s when we gradually began to make strides, and Eureka started playing our kind of basketball instead of us playing their kind of basketball.”

As Eureka began to see EPG turn their game around, Ehrhardt said, his team could see EPG’s pressure was beginning to concern Eureka. “When we saw that happening, we just kept our foot down on the gas pedal and taking it at them.”

“EPG had some really fortunate loose ball bounces, but they never quit,” Eureka’s Prina said in commending the Lady Titans on their effort. “That’s what you expect from a team from El Paso Gridley is a team that never quits, a team that’s always going to compete, and we knew we had our hands full.”

The win pushed Eureka, currently first in Class 2A toward a 26-2 mark. The win was the team’s 14th straight win on the season. EPG, who also lost to Eureka in early January, saw their record drop to 12-11 after this contest.

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