There was a lot on the line for the Effingham girls basketball team Tuesday night. The Hearts were riding a twelve-game win streak into a battle for citywide bragging rights against the visiting Bulldogs of St. Anthony.
What's more, they were looking to take control of their own Effingham Tournament and jump out to an early 2-0 tourney-record.
Yet the game was anything but easy for coach Jeff Schafer and his battle-tested squad. The Hearts would watch their ten-point lead slowly disappear in the fourth quarter as the resilient visitors fought back into contention.
Then, when it seemed St. Anthony had turned the tide for good, Josie Zerrusen delivered the final knock-out blow. Ahead 39-37 with under two minutes to play, Zerrusen hit a three-point dagger from the baseline, extending the Hearts' lead to five and putting the game on ice. Effingham would go on to take the victory by a final tally of 48-39.
"We came down the floor and bam," Schafer said, "The lead gets back up to five. That was kind of like our knock-out punch."
The Hearts managed to take control of the game, at least momentarily, with their 16-point third quarter. Effingham turned a four-point halftime advantage into a 10-point third quarter lead.
"We're good when we execute," Schafer said. "In the first half, it's not that we were were telegraphing our passes, we just didn't hit that person that was open."
For the second time in as many nights, St. Anthony used a valiant fourth-quarter comeback to give themselves a chance at victory. Trailing 34-24 as the fourth quarter began, the Bulldogs clawed back into contention behind a balanced offensive attack.
Back-to-back buckets from Kate Richards and Megan Nuxoll had the Bulldogs within five, and St. Anthony would pull within three moments later when a Lexie Niebrugge jumpshot put the score at 36-33. The run came after the St. Anthony defense finally began to slow the vaunted Effingham attack, grabbing rebounds and generating turnovers to keep the game close.
"I feel like we finally put together four quarters of basketball," Bulldogs' coach Bart Wiedman said. "We made our defense become our offense and that's what gets us back into ballgames."
Effingham and St. Anthony would trade baskets on their ensuing possessions, before a Megan Nuxoll jumper had the game back within two at 39-37. The Hearts wasted no time calming the visiting crowd, with Zerrusen burying the deep three the next trip down the court.
"She's one of the people that we always want to go to," Schafer said. "She provides a huge mismatch because she can stay outside or drive it in inside."
Zerrusen led all scorers on the night, finishing with 17 points and four rebounds. Stephanie Robb and Lauren Stephenson were also two key contributors for Effingham, scoring eight and six points, respectively.
For St. Anthony, the Bulldogs were led by the complete-game efforts of Kate Richards and Megan Nuxoll. Richards delivered nine points and four rebounds, while Nuxoll added eight points and four rebounds of her own. Makayla Walsh shared the team-high with nine points.
With the victory, the Hearts' 13-game win streak lasts at least another day. Effingham plays for the third time in as many days when lay their 17-3 record on the line against Centralia at 7:45 p.m. tonight.
St. Anthony has the day off before returning to action on Thursday against Neoga. The Bulldogs fall to 12-9 with the loss.
Effingham 48, St. Anthony 39.
Effingham 14 4 16 14 - 48
St. Anthony 12 2 10 15 - 39
Effingham- Zerrusen 17, Robb 8, Stephenson 6, Kaufman 5, Totten 5, Utz 5, Michael 2.
St. Anthony- Richards 9, Walsh 9, Nuxoll 8, Bushur 6, Wendt 4, Niebrugge 3.