Despite back-to-back losses, Dundee-Crown entered its District 300 rivalry girls basketball game against Jacobs on Thursday with unwavering confidence.
The Chargers went toe-to-toe with Huntley the week before, leading the two-time defending Fox Valley Conference Valley Division champions at halftime before the Red Raiders pulled away in the fourth quarter for a 58-45 win.
Still, the Chargers held the rebounding edge and held Huntley to less than 30 percent shooting from the field, showing they can hang around with a team that hasn’t lost an FVC Valley game since 2013, a streak that has now reached 27 games after a win against Cary-Grove on Tuesday.
This from a team that lost both of its leading scorers to graduation, including Northwest Herald All-Area first-team forward Jesania Laboy, one of two area players to average a double-double last season, and point guard Creighton Fed. Both now play at Rock Valley College, the winner of three NJCAA Division III national championships in the past four years.
“We’ve really been struggling with consistent one-unit efforts during the game,” D-C coach Sarah Miller said. “We sat down and really talked about playing as one unit and everyone being on board and supporting each other, taking ownership on every play.”
The Chargers displayed cohesiveness against the Golden Eagles on both ends of the floor, passing the the ball four, sometimes five times before finding their shot and rarely giving Jacobs any free looks at the basket or fast-break opportunities en route to a 40-26 FVC Valley win.
It was in stark contrast to what the Chargers looked like early in the season, Miller said, when D-C would rush and settle for the first or second shot.
On Thursday, D-C (11-13) took a 25-22 lead into the fourth and outscored the Eagles, 15-4, in the quarter. The Chargers turned the ball over only once, showing poise at a time when the pressure of a big rivalry game might cause some players to run and hide.
“[Miller] teaches us to play one possession at a time,” said junior forward Allison Michalski, who averages 10.4 points and five rebounds a game. “It’s great. We played as a team and we played consistently. We’re finally playing as one unit.”
The win was the Chargers' fourth in a row over Jacobs dating to last season.
D-C swept Jacobs in FVC Valley play last season and beat the Golden Eagles, 57-50, in a Class 4A regional final. It was the team's first regional title since 2003, but that team had three starting seniors. This season, D-C (11-13) has one, shooting guard Melissa Barker, who leads the team with 11.6 points a game to go with an area-leading 73 3-pointers, shooting 50.3 percent from long range.
Michalski, who missed half of last season with a torn ACL, also received significant time as a sophomore before an injury.
Six of the 10 players on D-C's roster are sophomores, and some early-season growing pains were expected, Miller said.
“We’ve battled a little bit of playing under control at times,” Miller said. “We have a lot of speed, but it was just a matter of fine-tuning that speed. I felt like our point guards (against Jacobs) did a good job of keeping the pace within limits, still keeping it fast-pace but under control. Our fouls were limited. I was proud of that because we’ve battled with a lot of foul trouble this season.”
After the game, Miller praised junior Paige Gieseke (6.2 points a game, seven rebounds), a 6-foot point guard, for playing under control and not forcing any deep passes against the Eagles' zone.
Jacobs worked to take away Michalski in the second half after the 5-11 forward repeatedly took the undersized Eagles to the rim off the dribble in the first two quarters, putting added pressure on Gieseke and sophomore Kennedy White to run the offense and find more scoring options.
In some cases, it was Gieseke and White themselves doing the scoring.
"I looked at her, and I was like, 'Paige, I got to get some offense from you,'" Miller said. "And the next possession she took the girl to triple. You don't have much space as a 6-foot point guard."
White came off the bench and scored 10, showing a new-found confidence and not hesitating to attack the hoop. She also hit all four of her free throws down the stretch for the Chargers. Barker, who leads the team in 3s, also had the ball in her hands and was 3 of 4 from the free-throw line.
"The confidence is from all the girls," White said after the win. "It's been building up and we've seen better results."
Defensively, sophomores Anna Kieltyka and Maddie Tripp, a 6-foot-2 center, helped slow the Eagles, who didn't have a single player score more than five points. Earlier this season, Tripp came in and replaced Michalski, who fouled out, in a 54-51 win over Larkin, finishing with a double-double – another example of a player stepping up and gaining confidence in a new role.
Tripp is averaging seven points and 10 rebounds a game.
D-C celebrated the win in the locker room at Jacobs to a chorus of loud cheers that could be heard outside the door.
Although the Chargers are two games under .500, D-C has played better in recent stretches than its record would indicate. D-C almost knocked off Crystal Lake South (17-6) on Saturday, coming from seven points down at halftime and forcing overtime in a 51-46 loss.
They also advanced to the Northern Illinois Holiday Classic second-place bracket championship against South but lost. Those losses might sting, but the Chargers have come a long way after dropping six of their first seven.
"We continue to get better every game," said Michalski, who added that her teammates have made her comeback from last year's ACL tear a lot easier. "We all have each other's backs."