Through three quarters of action, the Effingham 11-game win streak was in serious danger on Monday night. Despite holding a 31-26 advantage with one quarter to play, the home crowd remained a little restless.
That was until Effingham dialed up their defense and found the fourth quarter scoring of Stephanie Robb. The Hearts limited Neoga to just six fourth quarter points and Robb scored eight of her nine tallies on the evening in the final eight minutes to pull away and open their tournament with a 46-31 win.
Holding just a five-point advantage as the last quarter approached, the Hearts were in desperate need of an offensive spark. Their three-point shooting had been off all night, and it seemed like they just couldn't quite get into an offensive rhythm.
"It didn't seem like we were taking bad shots," Hearts coach Jeff Schafer said. "It just seemed like we weren't taking the normal shots in the flow of the game."
Robb had been especially quiet in the first half, limited to just one point through the first three quarters.
"She told me at halftime that she would play better," Schafer said, "and we ran a couple nice sets late for her and got her the basketball. Then she finished."
The 5-11 junior found her groove in the fourth, scoring on four of the first five Effingham possessions. She was joined by a solid all-around performance from Josie Zerrusen.
Zerrusen was huge on both ends of the floor, finishing with twelve points and ten rebounds, both team-highs.
On Neoga's end, freshman E.C. Thies played well beyond her years. The first-year player was fantastic from start to finish, scoring a game-high 20 points for the Indians.
"She's a good athlete," Neoga coach Kim Romack said. "She can go up against anyone. She scored when we needed her to score and stepped up well for us tonight."
Effingham senior Kelli Utz earned the right to match-up on Thies in the second half, and her effort on the defensive end was instrumental in holding the Indians to 12 second-half points.
Thies scored nine points after the break, but was limited to just three made field goals.
"Kelli is one of the best defenders around," Schafer said. "She's really one of the best basketball players around. She made those hustle plays in the second half, made it a lot tougher for them."
Utz contributed a steady nine points and eight rebounds for Effingham, who have now won twelve straight games.
Though the final score may not reflect it, Schafer was relieved to have this opening round battle against Neoga out of the way.
"Give them all the credit, " he said. "Those girls busted their butts and kept themselves in the game."
Effingham improves to 16-3 with the win, and the Hearts returns to action tonight when they host crosstown rival St. Anthony. They are slated for the second game of the night with tip-off at 7:45 p.m.
Neoga drops to 6-14 after the tough defeat, but Romack believes the Indians can still turn their tournament back in the right direction.
"The teams we have coming up the rest of this week are all teams we can compete with," Romack said. "We have got to take the positives from tonight and build on that."
Neoga has the night off, facing Dieterich at 6:15 p.m. on Wednesday.
Effingham 46, Neoga 31
Effingham 13 11 7 15 - 46
Neoga 9 10 6 6 - 31
Effingham - J. Zerrusen 12, Utz 9, Robb 9, Kaufman 5, Field 4, Totten 4, Beals 2, Stephenson 1.
Neoga - Thies 20, Butler 5, J. Deters 4, K. Deters 2