McHenry County College sophomore Kaleigh Johnson scouted the Scots’ path through the Region IV women’s college basketball playoffs and had a good feeling. The McHenry West graduate immediately texted her teammates, all seven of them.
“I looked at who we could be playing, and I said, ‘We can do this,’ ” said Johnson, the Scots’ only sophomore. “Saying it is one thing, but we’re doing it, too. If everyone believes, that’s the biggest obstacle. And everyone believes. We’re all on board.”
After slipping by Triton, 55-54, in the Region IV quarterfinals and outlasting South Suburban, 64-59, in overtime in the semifinals, the Scots (22-10) are a win away from advancing to the NJCAA Division II national tournament for the first time in program history.
McHenry County College, ranked third in the region, will face top-seeded Wisconsin Bryant and Stratton (23-9) at noon Saturday in the Region IV championship at Waubonsee Community College in Sugar Grove. The winner goes to the national tournament in Harrison, Arkansas.
Johnson, who missed the first playoff game against Triton with a concussion, was on the Scots’ team last season that lost in the first round. That almost happened again as MCC trailed, 45-41, going into the fourth quarter before holding Triton to nine points in the fourth and advancing by a point.
Against South Suburban, the No. 2 team in the region, MCC survived a back-and-forth battle before prevailing in overtime.
“It’s awesome. I haven’t been on a team that’s been winning in a long time,” Johnson said. “It’s just so cool to be a part of it, to be working with them every single day. I think that everyone believes that we can win, and everyone wants to win. I’ve been on teams in the past where people doubted. We’re not doubting. We’re playing together, and I think that’s probably our biggest asset. We’re mentally tough, and we’re mentally ready for it.”
MCC earned a share of its first Illinois Skyway Collegiate Conference title in 12 years, going 11-3 in the ISCC, and won 20 games for the first time since the 2005-06 season.
The Scots have lost only three times since Jan. 1, going 14-3.
Freshman forward Lacey Gardner leads the Scots with 14.7 points and 9.9 rebounds a game. Johnson (5.9 rebounds, 2.8 assists) and point guard McKaylie Krey average 12.9 points each. Krey also leads the team with 3.8 assists a game. Maddie Kaempf (McHenry East) averages 9.7 points and 7.3 rebounds, and Grace Gajewski (Huntley) averages 9.2 points and hit a team-high 47 3-pointers.
Fourth-year MCC coach Karen Wiley admits the Scots are underdogs going into the championship game against Bryant and Stratton, but her team believes it can win any game it gets into.
“I think when it comes down to it, they’re playing for each other,” Wiley said. “We’ve never had kids ask, ‘How many points did I score?’ or ‘What are my stats?’ They’re fun to coach because they like to play as a team. They care about each other; they want to
run through the wall for each other, and they want to run through the wall for us.”
Gajewski said it took some time before the players started believing in their talents. Now, they all believe.
“I think we all just want to work hard, and we all want to win,” Gajewski said. “We all believe we can win. I don’t think we believed before. That’s something that [Wiley] has been putting in our heads, that if we believe as a team, if we believe together, we’re going to be able to do it.”
The Scots played Bryant and Stratton on Dec. 19, losing, 75-68. In that game, MCC carried an eight-point lead into the break but was outscored, 27-17, in the third quarter. The Bobcats switched to a zone defense in the second half, and MCC got too far behind.
Wiley said the Scots are a completely different team than the one they were three months ago.
“They switched to a zone, and we got stagnant,” Wiley said of the Scots’ previous loss to Bryant and Stratton. “They have three guards that do a nice job of handling the ball. They love to score in transition. They have a couple of posts that play big in the paint, but they aren’t very quick. I think we can beat them in transition. I think transition and rebounding will be big.”
Helping the Scots make in-game adjustments is assistant Ken Ruud, who was the head coach when MCC won seven consecutive conference titles from 2000 to 2006. One of the first phone calls Wiley made when putting together her coaching staff was to Ruud.
Ruud has taken the reins on offense, and Wiley heads the defense along with the day-to-day duties and recruiting.
“We’re just so blessed and thankful that the hard work is starting to pay off,” Wiley said. “It’s been a long road. It’s taken three seasons, but I had no doubt we could do it with the talent we have here.”
Kaempf chose to go to MCC because her sister, Ashley, went for two years and had a great time playing for Wiley. Now, Kaempf and her teammates want to make history for the school and their coach.
“It would mean everything,” Kaempf said. “Not only for us, but for the school, too. And especially for our coach. We want to make it there so bad just for her because being her first team to make it to nationals, no matter how we place, that’s still a really big deal.”