Ahead 10-3 through eight minutes of play, it appeared as though Effingham was well on its way to an Apollo Conference title. The Lady Hearts needed every bit of this lead, however, to keep a number of impressive streaks alive Thursday night against Salem.
Effingham survived a late push from the visiting Lady Wildcats in the final two quarters, answering the Salem run to secure a 42-35 victory and claim the Apollo Conference crown.
Effingham led for most of the first three quarters, before Salem used a 6-0 run to put the visiting squad right back in contention. Ahead 31-21, the Wildcats used a pair of Lady Heart turnovers and some tough offensive rebounding to cut the lead to 31-27.
"It's Salem," Effingham coach Jeff Schafer said. "You know every time we play it will be a tough game, we've been the top two or three programs in this conference for quite some time."
With an Apollo Conference title on the line, the two delivered a knock-down, slugfest of a fourth quarter. The lead would hover at five until an Annie Tucker jumper pulled the Lady Wildcats within three at 38-35.
An Effingham turnover put the ball back in the hands of the opposition with 50 seconds to play, and home fans collectively held their breath.
It hasn't been Salem's year, though, as two separate looks from beyond the arc failed to draw iron, and Kelli Utz and Josie Zerrusen sank four free throws down the stretch to pull away for the dramatic win.
The hard-fought contest kept a number of streaks alive for the Lady Hearts, who won their 20th game in as many tries. With a record of 23-3, Effingham also tied the record for most wins in a season in school history and won the Apollo Conference outright with its unblemished record of 10-0.
"That's a lot of good stuff," Schafer said. "I'm just so proud of their effort and how we've hung together."
Effingham threatened to break this game open early, scoring the first five points and leading by as many as eight points early in the second quarter. Just nine days after Effingham blew out Salem 68-35 at Salem, it looked like the rematch would be another big Lady Heart victory.
"I really thought we had a chance to blow it open in the second quarter," Effingham coach Jeff Schafer said. "We got a couple steals and couldn't finish. Instead of being up 15, Salem just wouldn't go away."
Effingham junior Caitlin Kaufman was huge for Schafer's squad. With Zerrusen in foul trouble in the second, Kaufman hit her first of four huge threes to stretch the lead back to eight with five minutes to play in the second. Two possessions later, Kaufman again delivered nothing but twine from three-point land to pull the home team ahead 21-11. A late Salem basket made it 21-13 at the break.
"Caitlin Kaufman came up huge," Schafer said. "Every time we needed something she was there."
Though Effingham allowed its opponent to rally, Schafer was all smiles knowing his team was able to fend off a hungry Salem squad.
"We didn't play perfectly, but we played through our mistakes," he said. "It didn't cost us, we don't want any learning points to come through losses this late in the season."
Kaufman scored a team-high 12 points on the night, all coming from her sharpshooting beyond the arc. Zerrusen added nine points for Effingham, and Kelli Utz chipped in with eight of her own. The Apollo Conference champions play in their regular season finale at home against Taylorville on Tuesday.
Salem 3 10 14 8 - 35
Effingham 10 11 10 11 - 42
Salem- Tucker 12, Hawkins 11, Beer 4, Cook 2, Henson 2, Hood 2, Holst 2.
Effingham- Kaufman 12, Zerrusen 9, Utz 8, Stephenson 6, Robb 4, Totten 3.