Maine South’s motivation going into Thursday night’s sectional championship game against Niles West wasn’t anything that happened this season. The Hawks had already beaten their CSL South rival twice this year, but they still weren’t taking them lightly.
Niles West was the team that knocked Maine South out of last year’s playoffs, denying them the chance to cut down the nets after winning a sectional championship.
So when Niles West rallied back to tie the game at the end of regulation, Maine South didn’t crack. Junior guard Kaitlyn Mullarkey scored the first four points of overtime and the Hawks came away with a 54-47 victory to win the IHSA Class 4A Park Ridge (Maine East) Sectional.
“She’s our floor captain; she leads our team in so many ways and it doesn’t have to be from scoring points,” Maine South Coach Mark Smith said of Mullarkey. “I know that she struggled with her shot throughout the course of the year, but she hit a huge three in the first quarter to get herself going.”
Spearheaded by Mullarkey’s three-pointer, Maine South ran out to a 13-0 lead in the first quarter. Center Jacqui Grant had back-to-back layups off of feeds from Maine South’s dribble penetration.
On the defensive end, Maine South played a triangle-and-two defense against Niles West, with Mullarkey and sophomore guard Mackenzie Duffy shadowing the Wolves' Jewell Loyd. Because of Maine South’s quick start, Niles West couldn’t get into their ball-control offense and the Hawks were able to stay with a triangle-and-two through the game’s entirety.
After her teammates missed a couple of open looks, Loyd started to be more aggressive in looking for her shot. She scored Niles West’s first seven points and Laurie Dijohn banked in a three-pointer at the buzzer to cut the Hawks’ lead to eight points after the first quarter.
“We come up with a big lead and then Jewell [Loyd] started heating up,” Mullarkey said. “We just said we need to step it up. We had more defensive pressure on her and we kept communicating.”
Loyd turned defense into offense for Niles West in the second quarter, getting two steals for easy layups to bring the Wolves within one, 20-19. But Maine South hit a couple big shots to end the half. Duffy knocked down a three-pointer with 24 seconds left and the Hawks went into halftime with a six-point cushion.
Niles West again rallied back thanks to Loyd’s shooting. The 5-foot-10 junior guard made five of her first seven shots in the second half – including two three-pointers – and Niles West again pulled to within one early in the fourth quarter.
“At 13-0 it’d be easy to pack your bags and call it a night, but we battled all the way back,” Niles West coach Tony Konsewicz said. “I was proud of our girls, it was a furious comeback and just fell short.”
But Loyd wouldn’t make another bucket for Niles West, missing her last five shots from the field. Maine South held her scoreless for the last 10 minutes of the game, including overtime.
Maine South went up four on another three-pointer from Duffy, but turned the ball over with just over two minutes left when Nina Duric was called for an offensive foul. Niles West proceeded to tie the game on two straight layups.
Neither team converted on their last possessions of regulation, setting the stage for the four-minute overtime period. With the score tied at 47-47, Mullarkey drove left and hit a 10-foot runner off the backboard to put Maine South ahead. She followed it up with another runner in the lane and Maine South knocked down three free throws to seal the win.
“Our coach said if you have your open lane drive at the basket,” Mullarkey said. “Those weren’t the plays called, but the lane was there so I took it.”
Loyd finished with 25 points for Niles West, her season high against Maine South. Grant and Michelle Maher led a balanced scoring attack for the Hawks with 14 points each.
The Hawks move on to face Proviso East at Loyola University on Monday. A chance to go to the state semi-finals will be on the line.
“This was very important,” Mullarkey said. “They knocked us out of the playoffs last year and even though we’d already beaten twice this year, we wanted to get our revenge from the playoffs last year.”