Wilmette, Sports

Defense keys Ramblers’ dramatic fourth-quarter comeback in sectional championship

Offense may come and go, but defense — at least for Loyola Academy girls basketball — always plays.

And thank goodness for the Ramblers.

In maybe the state’s biggest game of the season, a titanic clash between two 30-win powers, Loyola’s second-half defensive effort kept Maine South within an arm’s reach until the Ramblers’ offense came around.

When it did, the Ramblers reversed a six-point deficit in the final five minutes to claim a 53-47 sectional-championship victory Thursday night in Park Ridge.

“I think our girls were locked in to everything that was coming at them,” Loyola coach Jeremy Shoenecker said. “Our staff on the bench did a great job at reading signals and knowing what (the Hawks) were going to run at us, and our kids were prepared for it. If you do that against this team, you’re going to stay in the game.”

The Ramblers bench goes wild after a Hawks turnover in the final minute Thursday.

The matchup was the third straight year Loyola and Maine South have faced off in the sectional championship, with the Ramblers winning in 2022 and the Hawks a year ago. This season, with both programs returning essentially the same lineups and Loyola gaining a superstar transfer in Aubrey Galvan, another sectional rendezvous seemed inevitable.

The 31-1 Hawks held a six-point advantage on the 34-0 Ramblers with under five minutes to play when Loyola senior Paige Engels (19 points) drained a three-pointer to open the faucet for her team. Galvan hit another three, and Clare Weasler converted a tough lay-in to help the Ramblers tie things up at 45-45.

Maine South standout Meeghan Fahy (21 points) converted two free throws to put her team back in front, but it wouldn’t hold.

Off an offensive rebound, Galvan (game-high 24 points) swished her fifth three of the evening for a 48-47 Loyola lead with a minute to play.

“I just had to stay composed,” Galvan said. “There were times I got rushed and I realized it. Paige brought me back and got my mind focused, gave me the confidence to shoot that.”

From there, Loyola created more turnovers (7 in the fourth quarter) and went 5-of-6 from the free-throw line to cinch the victory.

When the clock ran out, the Ramblers celebrated accordingly and were quickly greeted on the Hawks home floor by a rush from the Loyola student section.

“It’s crazy. I can’t believe it,” senior Kelsey Langston said. “Especially on Maine South’s home floor, and the Rambler nation coming out to support us. We don’t normally get a sold-out crowd for the girls game so having this community come out and support us is amazing.”

Loyola senior Kelsey Langston shoots a free throw to help put a bow on the victory.

As her team was creeping back into the game late, Langston missed a key pair of free throws. But the senior got another chance and made up for it, converting a two-piece in the final minute.

“It was so big,” she said. “I know everybody on my team has full belief in me, so going to the line I just wanted to make them for my 15 best friends.”

The home Maine South was loud and proud from the onset Thursday, but Galvan quieted them down in the first quarter. The junior drained three triples, including a deep, step-back, buzzer-beating trey that pushed the Ramblers into a frenzy.

The hosts, though, erased Loyola’s 14-8 lead and tied things up at 22-22 by halftime.

The Hawks continued their ascent after the break, going on a 5-0 run to start the second half. They eventually took a two-point lead, 36-35, into the fourth quarter, setting up the Ramblers’ comeback dramatics.

Schoenecker praised his team’s poise down the stretch, crediting the experience of a familiar roster.

“We told them we’ve been in these situations,” he said. “We ran two plays, one for Paige and one for Aubrey. … You want to get the ball in their hands. If you’re going to lose, you want to make sure those are the two who get a shot up at the end.”

Engels added 8 rebounds, two blocks and two steals. Galvan had 3 steals and a block, and Clare Weasler had 6 points and 5 rebounds for Loyola.

The Ramblers move on to a supersectional/final-eight matchup with Libertyville (30-5), a 51-35 winner over Hononegah, at 7 p.m. on Thursday on the Wildcats home floor. Other teams remaining in IHSA Class 3A are Batavia, Fremd, Alton, Waubonsie Valley, Nazareth Academy and Homewood-Flossmoor.

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joe coughlin
Joe Coughlin

Joe Coughlin is a co-founder and the editor in chief of The Record. He leads investigative reporting and reports on anything else needed. Joe has been recognized for his investigative reporting and sports reporting, feature writing and photojournalism. Follow Joe on Twitter @joec2319

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