NORMAL — This state tournament basketball game for the ladies started out as a "miss-match."
LeRoy's misses — which were frequent in the first half — meant the Panthers had met their match in the first IHSA Class 1A state semifinal game Friday at Illinois State University's Redbird Arena.
"The first half was not pretty," said LeRoy coach Danielle Cooley, whose squad missed 17 of 21 first-half field goal attempts.
Freeport Aquin won the game between two tournament novices, 56-42, to advance into this afternoon's championship game. The Panthers (27-4) return to action at noon in the third-place game against Glasford Illini Bluffs.
"They beat us. They played better today," Cooley said,
Before the game was 4 minutes old, the winningest team in Aquin history (31-4) held a double-figure lead en route to scoring the game's first 18 points. The lead ballooned to a 20-point margin later in the first quarter.
The first LeRoy timeout came after Aquin's lead hit 9-0. Those who were quick to criticize Cooley for not acting sooner found no support from senior Molly Marcum.
"You can't blame anything on whether it was 5-0 or 9-0 (when the timeout came)," Marcum said. "It was our fault. Not hers."
By halftime, LeRoy had more turnovers than points (14-12) and found itself facing a 23-point deficit.
The Panthers, however, understand the significance of their advancement.
"Being the first (girls' basketball) team from LeRoy at state is something to be proud of," senior Ashley Walker said. "It was a great experience."
Though Cooley was pleased by what led to the Final Four berth, she said it's tough to settle for that.
"It was extremely hard to go into that locker room and say, 'We're here,' because we had every expectation that we could win," she said. "All four of us (teams) come here and hope we can play well."
The game got out of hand early, but there was no letup in LeRoy's effort.
"We hope the first four minutes are key for us," Cooley said. "We hope to come out and shoot lights out. One team did."
Aquin hit 9 of 15 first-quarter shots. Sophie Brunner, the Bulldogs' top career scorer, hit 13 of her game-high 30 points before 6 1/2 minutes had elapsed.
"The outstanding start didn't surprise me," Aquin coach Jeff Curry said. "They were on time for breakfast, early to the bus and no one forgot their pass. They were psyched and ready to go.
"There was no intimidation, no pregame jitters. No nothing. We were hitting on all cylinders."
By the time LeRoy got clicking, it faced a 24-point third-quarter deficit (40-16). Walker was unstoppable in the quarter, scoring 16 of her team-high 26 points in a six-minute stretch of the period.
"She kept driving and driving and never gave up," Brunner said.
"In the second half, when we made our run, they came back and hit big shots," Cooley said. "Ultimately, they hit shots that killed our momentum. We could never overcome that first quarter."
When Stephanie Howell — who hauled down a game-high 11 rebounds — scored in the opening seconds of the fourth quarter, LeRoy had reduced its deficit to nine points (45-36), a margin it had not seen since the first three minutes.
"Had a couple of baskets gone one way or the other, I thought we had a shot," Cooley said. "We didn't hit our shots today."
The Panthers made 30.2 percent of their overall attempts (16 of 53), with eight of their baskets coming during the torrid third quarter. Only two Panthers, Howell and Stephanie Hintz, hit half of their shots and collectively they were 3 of 6.
Marcum, limited to seven points, said "you shoot better when you're not in foul trouble." She fouled out with 3:05 left.
"We knew No. 30 (Walker) and No. 14 (Marcum) were their keys," Curry said. "We shut down No. 14. Our defense was outstanding."
Marcum and Ridgeview senior Megan Jones were the lone area athletes chosen for either the 15-player all-state first team or 15-player second team selected by the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association. They were each second-team selections on the combined 1A/2A honor squad. The lone area representative on the 20-player third team was St. Thomas More sophomore Randa Harshbarger.