Neuqua Valley has been itching for another chance to win the Oswego Hoops for the Troops Classic ever since losing 48-47 to Naperville Central in last year’s championship game.
The Wildcats earned another crack at the title by knocking off Rich South 73-54 on Wednesday to win its pool with a 3-0 record. It was the seventh straight win for Neuqua Valley (10-2), which will take on either reigning state champion Marian Catholic or Batavia in Saturday’s title game.
“We definitely hated coming in second last year,” Neuqua Valley senior guard Malia Smith said. “It was such a close game. I don’t think we played our best last year but this year we’re looking forward to hopefully playing Marian Catholic in the championship game on Saturday.”
The Wildcats weren’t looking past Rich South (6-4), which would have advanced to the final with a victory. The Stars scored the first basket of the game, only to see Neuqua reel off the next nine points.
Rich South showed some resiliency in pulling within 11-10 on a layup by Dasia Evans, but the Wildcats countered with a three-pointer from Kai Moon and a traditional three-point play from Smith.
Moon, who scored nine of her 14 points in the opening quarter, and Myia Starks later sank back-to-back three-pointers to trigger a 13-0 run that gave Neuqua a 30-12 cushion early in the second quarter.
“We always like to come out strong and play our hardest,” Smith said. “We all know that if we play our best we can beat any team, so every time we want come out with that same tempo and just start out the game strong because then we’ll finish out the game that way.”
That’s what happened here. Smith led all scorers with 20 points, 12 of which came in the second half when she went 4-for-4 from the floor and 4-for-4 from the free-throw line.
But Smith also had five rebounds, three steals and three assists, which was representative of Neuqua’s opportunistic defense and unselfish offense. Nine different Wildcats combined to dish out 19 assists and make 14 steals. Rich South had three assists and three steals.
“We’re pretty well-balanced across the board,” Neuqua Valley coach Mike Williams said. “Everyone is contributing on any given night, so we’re happy with that. Defensively we’ve done some great things.”
The Wildcats led by as many as 22 points before the Stars closed within 60-45 on a drive by Tierney Lockett with 5:51 left, prompting a Neuqua timeout. Center Bryce Menendez stopped the bleeding with a pull-up jumper and then Smith had a steal and layup to quash Rich South’s comeback ambitions.
Menendez overcame first-half foul trouble to contribute 12 points, five rebounds, three steals and three assists. Starks and Niki Lazar each added seven points and Najee Smith chipped in six points, seven rebounds and three steals.
Tierra Webb tallied 18 points to pace Rich South, which also got 17 points from Lockett and 12 points and three blocks from Evans.
The Wildcats know the competition will be much stiffer on Saturday but they are ready.
“It will be a great game,” Williams said. “It’s exciting to get to that point where we can have an opportunity to play them. That’s what we want. We want to get the opportunity to play those kinds of teams.”