ELGIN — O'Neill St. Mary's and Elgin Public/Pope John answered each other's tests all night in a battle of two top Niobrara Valley Conference teams.
As it has been the case in recent years, once again, it was the Cardinals which had the final answer.
They held the Wolfpack without a field goal in almost 6-1/2 minutes to end the night, and the Cardinals took advantage in rallying for a 55-48 victory to hand the hosts their first loss of the season.
It left EPPJ coach Randy Eisenhauer with a simple response to the night: "Shoot."
He meant it in an "aw, shucks" manner, but it could have probably been construed as him stating the single biggest reason Class D No. 2 EPPJ couldn't maintain an eight-point lead with 6:29 remaining.
They were held to 0 for 6 shooting from the field along with five turnovers in that final stretch, with the Wolfpack's three points via 3 of 8 free-throw shooting.
"The thing is, we had so many opportunities — missing 3s, airballing shots," he said. "We played not to lose in the last five minutes. We will learn from this, and we will get better."
Brianna Bauer — who came off the bench to score eight points — started the rally for the Class D No. 3 Cardinals with a 3-pointer with 6:10 left. Hattie Blumenstock, who led all players with 13 points, added a bucket before a pair of Taylor Colman free throws put the Cardinals within one midway through the quarter.
Blumenstock gave O'Neill St. Mary's the lead on a 3-point play with 2:14 left, and Taylor Colman added another 39 seconds later for a 50-45 lead. EPPJ missed a golden chance on points in the following moments when they came up empty after getting a steal on an inbounds pass.
Instead, Hedstrom helped the Cardinals put the finishing touches on the win.
With 53.4 seconds left, she was fouled and made the first free throw. She missed the second, but Blumenstock gathered the rebound and batted the ball back to Hedstrom near the free-throw line, where she scooped it up and hit the jumper for a 54-46 advantage.
"This was one of those games where you have to have a gut check," O'Neill St. Mary's coach Traci Berg said. "You have to do what it takes to win. ... I think we finally settled down in the fourth quarter and played basketball."
EPPJ was in position to hang onto a lead earlier in the quarter because of a couple runs.
They were held scoreless until Lydia Behnk connected on a 3-point play with 2:29 left in the first quarter. They ended that quarter on an 18-3 run to lead by seven going into the second quarter, and it grew to 24-14 after an Allyson Wemhoff free throw with 4:36 left in the first half.
O'Neill St. Mary's would cut the gap in half before halftime, and Hailey Eiler and Breanna Hedstrom hit back-to-back 3-pointers in 25 seconds to give the Cardinals a 33-31 lead 2:45 into the third quarter. Hattie Blumenstock added a bucket almost two minutes later to double the lead.
EPPJ would go on a 9-0 run to end the quarter. Jordan Mescher started it with a 15-foot jumper, and after an O'Neill St. Mary's turnover, Allyson Wemhoff drained a 3-pointer followed by a long two from Mescher. Baylee Wemhoff added a runner in the lane with nine seconds left in the quarter for a 40-35 lead.
They kept the momentum early in the fourth, with a Behnk putback before an Allyson Wemhoff 3 off a Baylee Wemhoff steal for a 45-37 lead with 6:29 left.
"It was a game of runs tonight," Eisenhauer said. "They finished with the bigger one."
O'Neill St. Mary's...11 13 11 20 - 55
EPPJ.....................18 11 11 8 - 48
O'NEILL ST. MARY'S (9-2): Breanna Hedstrom 3-7 2-4 10; Abby Hedstrom 0-1 0-0 0; Brianna Bauer 3-8 1-4 8; Hattie Blumenstock 6-11 1-1 13; Taylor Colman 3-6 4-9 12; Hailey Eiler 1-3 1-4 4; Logan Connot 3-5 2-3 8. Totals 19-41 11-25 55.
ELGIN PUBLIC/POPE JOHN (9-1): Lydia Behnk 3-6 5-5 11; Calli Krebs 0-2 4-4 4; Paige Meis 1-6 1-2 3; Jordan Mescher 3-8 3-8 9; Baylee Wemhoff 2-10 3-3 7; Allyson Wemhoff 4-12 1-3 11; Liz Selting 1-6 0-0 3. Totals 14-50 17-25 48.