BLOOMINGTON – When the brackets for the Small School Girls’ Division at the State Farm Bloomington-Normal Holiday Tournament were first posted, fans of University High School’s girls’ basketball team, seeded fifth, probably felt their team would do well, but possibly would run into problems against higher seeded teams. As the four-day tournament progressed, head coach Laura Sellers’ team faced three of four teams with single-digit seeds and emerged as the Small School Bracket Champion for this year by coming from behind to beat third seed and previously unbeaten Brimfield, 49-39, at Shirk Center on Illinois Wesleyan University’s campus Dec. 30.

But as the contest began, Brimfield (16-1), behind a trio of unanswered deuces from junior guard Haley Wallace, jumped out to a fast 6-0 lead following the opening tip. A Pioneers bucket by senior guard Logan Murray reduced that lead to 6-2. A pair of free throws by Brimfield junior forward Ella Lune pushed the Lady Indians up, 8-2. But U-High scored a deuce and a trey back-to-back soon after, with senior forward Chelsie Price scoring first followed by Murray adding to the total to pull U-High within one, 8-7 at the 4:11 mark in the opening quarter.

Brimfield went on a 6-0 unanswered run of their own, topped off by a basket from sophomore forward Sophie Bedell, giving the Lady Indians a 12-9 lead. A deuce and free throw by Lune pushed Brimfield out in front, 15-9 with 1:40 left in the opening quarter, but the Pioneers cut that lead, 15-11, on two free throws by junior guard Chloe Ward with 1:26 left in the quarter. Brimfield owned a 17-11 advantage to open the second quarter thanks to a bucket by Wallace.

U-High (10-6 after this game) opened the second quarter on a 6-0 spurt with a deuce each from sophomore guard Naomi Elliott and junior guard Alexis Noonan before Murray sank a trey to give the Pioneers their first lead of the contest, 18-17, with 5:49 remaining. Lune hit a pair of unanswered deuces to put Brimfield up by three, 21-18. Murray responded with a deuce to pull U-High within one, 21-20, with two minutes remaining. Wallace countered to put Brimfield up, 23-20. But then, Lune fouled Murray as she was in the process of shooting from behind the three-point line. As a result, Murray hit a trio of free throws and Price closed out the quarter with a deuce to put U-High up by two at the half, 25-23.

Noonan opened the second half with a deuce for the Pioneers to expand U-High’s lead, 27-23. Brimfield’s Wallace and U-High junior forward Kassidy Patton exchanged buckets, followed by a pair of baskets, one from Lune and one from senior forward Ella Cagwin, knotting the game at 29-29. U-High senior guard Emma Harding’s trey midway through the quarter gave the Pioneers a 32-29 advantage and prompted Pioneers’ Sellers to call a time out. Coming out of that timeout, Price hit another basket, increasing U-High’s lead, 34-29 with 3:26 left in the quarter. Brimfield head coach Maribeth Dura called timeout at that point to assess her team’s situation. Coming out of the timeout, Wallace hit a layup for Brimfield and was followed by back-to-back buckets for U-High from Price and Noonan, giving the Pioneers a 38-31 lead going into the fourth quarter.

U-High’s Murray and Brimfield sophomore forward Sophie Bedell exchanged deuces to open the fourth quarter, with the Pioneers in front, 40-33 with 6:13 left in the contest. A foul by Lune sent Price to the free throw line where she sank 1-of-2, increasing the Pioneers’ advantage, 41-33 at the 3:56 mark. Wallace followed for Brimfield hitting a deuce, cutting the Pioneers’ lead to six, 41-35, with 1:45 remaining. From there, Lady Indians fouls sent Ward to the free throw line twice, and Lune, Murray and senior guard Emma Harding once each. Combined, those shooters went 6-for-7 to give U-High a 47-35 lead.

Harding fouled Cagwin as she tried to shoot from beyond the three-point line, putting her at the line for three shots which she made with 15.7 seconds left, reducing U-High’s lead, 47-38. But Cagwin would then foul Ward with 9 seconds left. Ward would sink both shots giving U-High a 49-38 lead. Fouled by Pioneers sophomore guard Naomi Elliott, Cagwin would go 1-for-2 at the line for Brimfield’s final points, resulting in the final score.

Murray led U-High’s scoring with 15 points including two treys. She was followed in double-digits by Price’s 11. Wallace and Lune led Brimfield’s scoring effort, pocketing 16 points and 15 points, respectfully.

“We had the chance to be the aggressor defensively and those experiences paid off,” Sellers said afterward about part of U-High’s strategy. “When you play four games in four days, sometimes the last game isn’t the best game. I think both teams were getting after it and making it hard for the other to score and it became a defensive battle in the third quarter.”

“We really focus on our defense, and our biggest thing is if we can down, then we don’t have to worry about scoring as much,” explained Price.

“U-High is very physical, and we don’t normally see that,” admitted Dura following the game. “We knew they’d be physical. We thought we had a pretty good physical game going against Rochester the other day, but U-High just came out and played their hard-nosed defense. U-High is really good about being patient against opponents, so I think their possessions are very long, and I think we weren’t as patient.”

Pioneers Advance To Championship With Semi-final Win Over Rock Falls, 42-27: The win over the Spartans placed U-High in a semi-final in the bracket against top seed Rock Falls on Dec. 28. But the Lady Rockets discovered early they were in for a fight against U-High and it turned out to be a fight they couldn’t win. U-High led early and throughout the contest, with leads of 8-2 at the end of the first quarter and 19-7 at the half. The third quarter was the only one Rock Falls achieved scoring double-digits in, but U-High still outpaced them during that stanza, 13-12. Going into the fourth quarter, the Pioneers owned a 32-19 advantage. That win set them up to take on the Lady Indians for the Small School Girls’ bracket title on Dec. 30. Murray and Price led Pioneers’ scoring, with 17 and 15, respectfully. Junior guard Abi Peyton was the lone Lady Rockets player in double-figures with 13 points.

Second Round Victory Over St. Joseph-Ogden, 41-35: The final score of the Pioneers’ second round contest might not indicate it, but Sellers’ team’s defense prevented any 4th seeded St. Joseph-Ogden players from scoring in double-figures. What’s more, U-High trailed the Spartans after one quarter, 17-8, and 26-16 at the half. A 13-2 third quarter onslaught by the Pioneers gave U-High a 29-28 lead going into the fourth quarter where the Pioneers continued to overtake their opponents resulting in the victory. U-High’s Price led all scorers with 12 points followed in double-figures by Elliott who scored 10 points which included one trey and seven free throws in 12 tries at the line. Junior forward Payton Vallee served as St. Joseph-Ogden’s high scorer pocketing 9 points.

Pioneers Outpace Rockford Lutheran For First Round Win, 45-30: The Pioneers got their tournament off to a positive start by winning their opening round game against 12th seed Rockford Lutheran, 45-30. The Pioneers led throughout, 9-6 at the end of the first quarter, 23-12 at halftime, and 36-26 by the end of the third quarter. Patton led the Pioneers in scoring with 14 points followed by Price who scored 11 to boost their team into the second round against 4th seed St. Joseph-Ogden.

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