By Scott Williams
WESTON – Pressure? What pressure.
Down eight points with four minutes left in regulation and an unbeaten season hanging in the balance? No problem.
Stepping to the free throw line with the season on the line in overtime? Piece of cake for Ashley Steveler, Hailey Voelker and Vanessa Lopez.
Refusing to be denied a chance to play another day, third-ranked Colby foiled the gallant upset bid by Neillsville to pull out a 44-37 overtime win in a Division 4 sectional semifinal at D.C. Everest High School on Thursday night.
“We knew we had to work together and keep pushing through,” said Streveler, who finished with eight points in another typical balanced attack for the Hornets.
Coach Randy Rau had a simple message for his players once they were able to forge overtime.
“He told us we had a second chance and we had to take advantage of it and come up with the win,” Streveler offered. “If we stayed focused, we knew we would be able to come out on top.”
Colby (24-0) outscored the Warriors 10-3 in overtime to earn a date with in the sectional championship game against Crandon at Wausau West on Saturday at a time yet to be determined.
Crandon advanced with a 45-21 victory over Bonduel on Thursday.
For 32 minutes, the Warriors had every reason to believe they would be making plans to play Saturday.
In sharp contrast to the earlier meetings between Cloverbelt Conference East rivals won by the Hornets by an average of 23 points, Neillsville executed a perfect game plan.
A triangle-and-two defense did its part by slowing down Colby’s top threats in Alyssa Underwood and Streveler.
Even more vital to having the Hornets on the ropes was a patient disciplined attack.
The Warriors not only ran clock but worked for good looks at the basket by attacking the lane off the dribble.
“We wanted to make sure we played at our tempo and make them guard. I thought the game plan went very well. I thought the kids were tremendously disciplined in it,” Neillsville coach Joh
n Gaier said. “I’m tremendously proud of our girls. They gave everything they had.”
Sophomore guard Bella Opelt got to the lane at will and finished with a game-high 13 points. Samantha Cappadora added nine for Neillsville.
Unfortunately for the Warriors, the attack hit a snag at the most inopportune time. They went scoreless over the final four minutes and watched a 34-26 lead vanish in that span.
What seemed destined to be tears of joy after a season-defining win turned into tears of bitter disappointment on the free throw line as Colby sank one clinching free throw after another.
Three of the Warriors’ four losses this season came at the hands of Colby.
“It’s pretty heartbreaking right now,” Gaier said. “If we make a few plays down the stretch, we hold onto that lead. But credit them. They made plays when they had to make plays.”
Colby didn’t get to 23-0 coming into the sectional without being able to find a variety of ways to win.
In a rare close game, the Hornets turned up the pressure on defense. They forced the Neillsville guards into traps near the halfcourt line.
Several times those resulted in steals and easy baskets on the end of the other end of the court. Colby closed the game on an 8-0 spurt to force the extra period.
Neillsville had one chance to send shock waves through the Division 4 playoffs. The Warriors held the ball for the final 1:40 of regulation, but never were able to get a shot off.
Sighs of relief, followed by a celebration after a near flawless overtime took place near the Colby bench.
“I think out girls show a lot of composure in close games. They handled it well,” Rau said. “They’ve played a lot of basketball and there is not a lot that fazes them. They’re pretty cool, calm and collected. They did what they had to do and were able to finish it.”
Hornets 44, Warriors 37 (OT)
Neillsville 19 15 3 – 37
Colby 18 16 10 – 44
NEILLSVILLE (37): Kayla Oldham 2, Bella Opelt 13, Ali Schoengarth 4, Samantha Cappadora 9, Emma Moseley 3, Jaden Varth 4, Vanessa Zickert 2. 3-pointers: 2 (Moseley 1, Barth 1). Record: 21-4.
COLBY (44): Hailey Voelker 8, Vanessa Lopez 7, Lexi Underwood 9, Ashley Steveler 8, Alyssa Underwood 10, Heather Lynn 2. 3-pointers: 3 (L. Underwood 2, Lopez 1). Record: 24-0.