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By MATT DANIELS
For the Rantoul Press
FISHER — Walking along his team’s sidelines before Monday night’s Class 1A Fisher Sectional semifinal game, Ken Ingold stopped just short of midcourt.
“Just so you know,” the Bunnies girls basketball head coach said to the scorer’s table, “we are the visitors.”
He probably didn’t want to think of the label after LeRoy ended Fisher’s season with a 45-24 victory on the Bunnies’ home court.
Wearing their road black uniforms and having their score listed under the guests part of Fisher’s scoreboard, the Bunnies postseason run concluded thanks to paltry shooting by the Bunnies.
Fisher shot 6-of-33 (18 percent) from the field, a drastic difference from what LeRoy freshman Alyssa Aupperle did to the Bunnies.
The guard drained 7-of-12 3-pointers en route to a career-high 24 points, including three in a row in the final 80 seconds of the third quarter to expand LeRoy’s lead from 25-16 with 4:47 left in the quarter to 36-16 by the time the fourth quarter arrived.
“We’ve seen her all the way back at the junior high that when she can get set like that, she can hit shots,” LeRoy head coach Danielle Cooley said. “It was so much fun. I wanted to jump up and down in the third quarter, but I had a game to focus on. I was incredibly proud of her, and I think our entire coaching staff is so proud that she could step up and make some big shots for us.”
LeRoy’s starters only managed seven points, including only five combined from senior stalwarts Shannon Steffen and Lauren Russell. Russell didn’t score and missed all 10 of her shot attempts from the field, but contributed five rebounds and three steals.
“We wanted to definitely run Russell off the 3-point line, and we did,” Ingold said. “We were also concerned about Steffen’s penetration. She’s been a great starter for them for three years. We carried out the game plan just the way we wanted. If somebody was going to beat us, it wasn’t going to be those two. Aupperle beat us. We were on her still in the second half. It was just one of those nights for her.”
Fisher (17-14) only trailed 11-9 in the first minute of the second quarter after an offensive rebound putback by junior center Caitlin Cole. But that was the last field goal of the first half for the Bunnies, who only made four more shots from the floor the rest of the game. Cole finished with 10 points, 15 rebounds and four blocked shots, but foul troubles for junior guard Olivia Heffernan and junior forward Hannah Varner hindered Fisher’s offense.
“They’ve been two really good offensive players for us,” Ingold said. “Olivia gets everything set up and rolling, and Hannah’s been a good scorer for us the last month.
It was really difficult to not have them out there for the majority of the game. We weren’t really confused by what we were doing, but I thought LeRoy’s ball pressure on our guards really created some havoc for us.”
The Panthers (20-9) forced Fisher into 21 turnovers while Cooley’s squad only finished with 13. LeRoy mixed it up defensively, alternating between a zone fullcourt press, along with halfcourt zone and halfcourt man-to-man.
“Our biggest thing was we didn’t get the ball inside enough on offense,” Ingold said. “We weren’t in a rhythm offensively, and a lot of credit goes to LeRoy’s defense.”
Aside from Aupperle’s breakout night, Cooley was most pleased with her team’s scrappiness when the Panthers didn’t have the ball.
“We’re not always great shooters, and when we’re not great shooters, we need to rely on our defense,” Cooley said. “We have 12 girls who have bought in to playing a really good defensive game. Our seniors stepped up in the locker room and said they weren’t ready to go home. We knew an eight-point (halftime) lead wasn’t going to do it against a well-coached Fisher team. We created turnovers when we needed it and had some key stops.”
Take Aupperle out of the equation, and LeRoy only finished 6-of-31 from the field, nearly identical numbers by Fisher. But add Aupperle into LeRoy’s solution, and it was clear to see why Fisher wasn’t able to celebrate its first-ever sectional semifinal win.
“Hopefully we got a little taste of it this year and can go ever farther next year,” Ingold said. “We didn’t play as well as what we could (Monday), but some of that was foul trouble and LeRoy. It’s a good group of girls. I’m really excited about next year already.”
He has reason to be. Fisher did not end the season with any seniors, and its starting five of Cole, Varner, Heffernan, junior guard Sydney Blackwell and sophomore guard Kelcie Fredrickson, along with sophomore reserves in Leah Williams, Delaney Cochran, Rachel Tobeck and Courtney Delaney, who all saw minutes during crucial segments on Monday, will have had the experience of winning a regional championship to build on for the 2013-14 season.
“Our conference isn’t going to get any easier, but I think we definitely have to be excited about what’s coming back,” Ingold said. “I think Fisher girls basketball is in pretty solid shape for awhile. So are other schools, but that’s what makes this fun.”