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FINAL FOUR: Altamont defeats Cissna Park to advance to the state tournament for the first time in program history

Feb. 26—BLUE RIDGE, Ill. — Nearly 200 Class 1A girls basketball programs open each season with the dream of playing at the state tournament in Bloomington.

Only four get the opportunity to make that dream a reality.

Some of the teams involved are repeat qualifiers. Others are experiencing CEFCU Arena, on the campus of Illinois State University, for the first time.

Altamont checks the latter.

The Lady Indians defeated Cissna Park in the Class 1A Farmer City (Blue Ridge) Super-Sectionals on Monday night, 52-44, to advance to the state tournament for the first time in program history.

"I'm just so proud," Altamont head coach Craig Carr said. "Proud of our players, their families, all the (little) kids, the community; I'm so proud to be a part of it."

The first-year head coach wasn't without a dry eye once the final buzzer sounded.

Neither were members of the team.

Senior guard Grace Nelson said, "It's so unreal, so many happy tears tonight. Our goal at the beginning of the year was to go to (CEFCU) Arena. It might have seemed so unreal at the time, but now it's just reality. We've worked our butts off to get here."

Fellow senior guard Peyton Osteen added, "I was emotional after. Tears of joy, of course, but it's such an amazing feeling, something we've been preparing for since June."

Nelson — who will be attending Illinois State in the fall on a basketball scholarship — is excited to take the floor she will soon call home for the next four years.

She had yet another banner night against the Lady Timberwolves that allowed her to feel that way, too.

Nelson finished with 34 points, leading all scorers in that regard.

Senior guard Claire Boehm added 10 points, including a pair of three-pointers in the first half, while Osteen had eight points with two three-pointers in the second.

"Recently, it's been tough; it hasn't been falling," said Osteen of her shooting. "But it's this game or nothing. This could have been our last one, so I just thought, 'You know what, I'll just throw it up there and pray for the best,' and tonight, it luckily went in when we needed it to."

The Lady Indians were tied at 12 apiece after the first quarter.

Cissna Park scored the first five points of the contest. Sophomore Addison Lucht knocked down a three-pointer, while fellow sophomore Lauryn Hamrick made a layup.

Altamont got on the board when Boehm hit her first three-pointer.

Nelson then made a layup with 5:13 left in the first and followed that with a pair of free throws that made it 7-5.

Another Lucht three-pointer with 2:52 left would put the Lady Timberwolves in front 8-7, but Nelson answered with a midrange jumper to put the Lady Indians back on top, 9-8.

Cissna Park sophomore Josie Neukomm knocked down a three-pointer to put the Lady Timberwolves ahead 11-9. Junior Autumn Reutter then hit one of her two foul shots, and Boehm ended the first quarter with a three at the buzzer to tie the contest.

Altamont would then outscore Cissna Park 11-8 in the second stanza to take a 23-20 advantage into the break.

Boehm put the Lady Indians ahead with a pair of free throws to start the frame.

Senior Regan King hit one of her two at the charity stripe before a Nelson layup pushed the Altamont lead to three, 16-13.

Nelson then hit two more free throws to extend the margin to five points. Neukomm cut into it, however, hitting a three to make it a two-point contest, 18-16.

Osteen then hit a midrange shot with 3:09 left to give the Lady Indians a 21-18 advantage.

The Lady Timberwolves, though, cut into the lead once more, making it a one-point game, 21-20, before a Nelson layup with 36 seconds left made the halftime tally.

Altamont would then outscore Cissna Park 15-12 in the third before Nelson, herself, bested the Lady Timberwolves in the fourth, 14-12.

Nelson did most of her work in the fourth period at the charity stripe, where she went 12-for-13. She finished the game going 20-for-21 at the foul line.

"I was hitting my free throws the whole game, so I was like, 'Give me the ball, and I'll put them in,'" Nelson said.

Though the Lady Indians did come away victorious, the game itself was far from a walk in the park.

Altamont pushed its lead to double-figures in the third quarter, but Cissna Park clawed back, eventually taking a one-point lead, 39-38, after a Lucht three-pointer with 4:43 left.

Carr said he didn't say much to his team during that stretch.

It instead was his senior core.

"I didn't say a whole lot. Our seniors are the ones that do the talking in situations like that," he said. "There's no fold in these kids."

The effort defensively never folded, either.

Junior guard Libby Reardon and senior guard Brianna Grunloh are two such pests on the defensive end of the court. Both came up with key defensive plays against the Lady Timberwolves, too.

Carr said of Reardon, "Great to have Libby back. High energy kid; everybody loves Libby for good reason. She's fun to be around, but she's very serious on the defensive end. We can put her on anybody one through five, and she's going to do the job."

When asked about Grunloh, Carr added, "We put Bri on their shooter. Bri was in her shirt most of the night; Bri also got the rebound that ended the game, which is fitting because she's rebounded the ball pretty well for a small kid."

Grunloh and Reardon will look to continue that stout defensive play on Thursday morning when they take the court against Glasford (Illini Bluffs) at 9:30 in the state semifinals. The winner of that game will play for the state championship Saturday at 11 a.m., while the loser will play later that night for third place.

Contact EDN Sports Editor Alex Wallner at 618-510-9231 or alex.wallner@effinghamdailynews.com.