COAL CITY — For the first time since 2006, the Joliet Catholic Academy girls basketball team has won a regional championship. Led by 19 points from freshman Nicole Ekhomu and 18 from junior Jasmine Lumpkin, the Angels jumped out to a substantial lead and then cruised to a 51-39 victory over the hosting Coalers for the right to cut down the nets.
"There is no doubt that they had the edge in athleticism and it showed early on," Coal City coach Brad Schmitt said. "They are on a little different level than we are. Still, the girls grinded it out the best they could and that's all I can ask."
JCA (24-4) forced two Coal City turnover in each of its first two possessions and then Lumpkin blocked the next shot by the locals. Two more turnovers ensued before the Coalers actually put up a shot that missed. It wasn't until the 4:36 mark of the opening frame that Coal City scored.
"They are definitely one of the quickest teams we have played, if not the quickest team we hace played," Coal City junior guard Emily Halliday said. "We're not used to that. They were fast closing the gaps. It was something that was hard to adjust to."
It was 7-0 when Halliday scored the first basket and it would get to 9-2 before Schmitt called a time out. After two more turnovers, the Coalers finally found a flow to the offense and scored in four of the following five possessions. Donjeta Shabani, Halliday, Britta Spelde and Nicole Borgetti scored in that stretch to help close the deficit to 18-11 at the end of the first quarter.
"You have to maintain that energy for four quarters and it seemed like we were stop and go there for a while," JCA assistant coach Chris Smith said. "The team can't afford to take plays or quarters off."
JCA's lead grew to 14 by halftime (31-17) with Borgetti getting five points in the frame and Spelde adding a free throw. From there, the lead was pretty much stationary, even growing to 15 by the end of the third (41-26).
"We mainly went zone because we didn't want them to get 1,000 shots in the paint tonight," Halliday said. "But they were hitting their outside shots, too. We were not boxing out very well, either."
That led to JCA holding a 26-18 rebounding advantage in the game.
"I thought we extended our matchup zone and were able to pressure them in the second half," Schmitt said. "We did what we could.
"(JCA) did exactly what they have done all year. They beat us up on the boards. It's not easy rebounding out of a zone, and your going to give up some offensive boards, but we did a better job with that in the second half."
Halliday added five points in the third quarter and six more in the fourth to finish with a team-high15 for the Coalers. Borgetti and Shabani also added field goals in the third quarter.
Shabani is the lone senior on the team this year who will be gone to graduation, which leaves the Coalers (23-7) feeling optimistic about next year.
"There are not too many people who thought that we'd keep it close tonight," Halliday said. "Next year we'll have the experience of playing at the 3A level, which we just did for the first time. I think we'll have a lot of potential next year."
"I told the team that they have been a very fun group to coach," Schmitt said. "They are competitive and I know they are going to put in the time they need to get better, Now that they've seen the competition, they know what to expect. They are going to work hard to get there. They left everything out there they possibly could tonight.
"We're going to miss Don. She's such a versatile athlete with a big body underneath. She could also get loose in transition. I'm proud of her effort defensively this year. She really stepped up."