By Randy Whalen
There was a point in the championship game of the State Farm Holiday Classic when Marist looked unstoppable.
But the RedHawks lost their "mojo, and top-seeded Morton pulled away in the second half en route to a 68-51 victory over Marist on Dec. 30 in the large-school title game of the annual tournament, which was held at the Shirk Center on the campus of Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington.
Morton (15-0), the defending Class 3A state champion and winner of four state titles since 2015, will be looking for another state championship in two months.
Both teams had balanced scoring, it's just that the Potters had more of it. They were led by 20 points from sophomore forward Katie Krupa. Senior guards Peyton Dearing (19 points) and All-Tournament selection Lindsey Dullard (15 points) also came up big.
All three had more points than any RedHawk. Sophomore point guard Kira Chivers led the way with 14 points. Junior forward Sydney Affolter, who made the All-Tournament team, scored 12, while senior guard Jenna Ryan had 11 and sophomore forward LaLani Harris chipped in with eight.
The second-seeded RedHawks (12-3), making their inaugural appearance in the tourney, were right there in the first half but were outscored 35-19 over the final 16 minutes.
"We lost our mojo in the second half," Marist coach Mary Pat Connolly said. "But I'm so proud of these girls to get to the title game. We just didn't have the post players to match up against them."
The Potters held a 27-23 advantage on the boards. They were able to transition for layups or get fouled driving to the hoop. They converted 13-of-14 free throws in the game.
Early on, Marist was the team tallying the points in transition. Trailing 13-7 with three minutes left in the first quarter, the RedHawks ended the period with 10 straight points, six of them by Chivers, who had 12 points in the first half. A pair of free throws by Affolter, who was 7-of-7 from the line, and a 3-pointer by Ryan, who had all 11 of her points in the first half, capped a 15-0 run and gave Marist a 22-13 lead.
That advantage grew to 25-15 on a trey by Chivers with 5:55 left in the first half.
Trailing 27-19 midway through the second quarter, Morton went on a 14-5 burst to grab a 33-32 halftime lead; and after scoring 25 points in the first 11 minutes of the game, the RedHawks scored just 26 over the final 22.
"In the first half, we were playing Marist ball," Chivers said. "We were running and playing so well together. "But they slowed us down and came out strong in the second half.
"[To stay successful] we just need to play solid. We need to block out, rebound and keep our composure on the defensive end. We have a tough schedule coming up."
A traditional three-point play by Affolter tied the game one last time at 35-35, 33 seconds into the second half. The Potters than embarked on an 11-0 run to take control. Marist, which was 12-of-13 from the line, never got closer than seven points, at 50-43, the rest of the game.
It was 52-43 after three, and Morton led by as many as 19 in the fourth quarter.
The RedHawks were happy to play for the championship game in their first trip to the tourney.
"It's a really tough tournament," Affolter said. "We played really well in the first half. We just weren't talking as much in the second half. We have a tough schedule and we are learning from these games. We are going to push ourselves."
If they push themselves, Connolly believes the sky is the limit.
"This group reminds me of our 2007-08 team that finished fourth in the state," Connolly said. "We won the supersectional (48-44 over Edwardsville) that year on this court, so it can be done. This group is a lot of fun and the girls have formed a deeper bond."