HEARTBREAK: Effingham battles back, falls short of winning first sectional title since 2019 in loss to Highland

Feb. 23—EFFINGHAM — From many different angles, the shot looked good.

Effingham junior forward Sidney Donaldson made one move to create separation, heaved up a three-point attempt with just under two seconds left, and just had to watch, hoping it went through the nylon.

However, that wasn't the case.

Donaldson's shot hit the right iron and bounced off, and the Flaming Hearts magical season was over at the hands of Highland. The Bulldogs won the Class 3A Effingham Sectional 34-31 at Effingham High School.

Head coach Jeff Schafer said of the play and the sequence leading up to it, "We had one timeout left with two possessions to go, and I wanted them to continue to attack, and if I didn't think we got something, I could call a timeout, and we could run our best out-of-bounds play. Averie got in there one step too far, but Bella was wide-open with a wide-open look at the top of the key to either win the basketball game or lose it. Then, we had to foul, and the kids did exactly what I drew up. I said, 'Get the ball to Alyssa as quickly as possible, and Alyssa, drive it all the way down to the volleyball line, and then just turn around and look for somebody trailing.' They made a pretty decent defensive play.

"There were a bunch of anxious eyes in the gym."

The Hearts finished the season with a 29-5 record.

Highland led by three, 7-4, at the end of the first quarter.

Effingham's lone hoops came from sophomore Alyssa Martin's layups. The Bulldogs scored on layups from Abby Schultz and Larissa Taylor and a three-pointer from Sophie Schroeder.

The Hearts' struggles offensively continued in the second stanza while Highland heated up. The Bulldogs led 22-8 at one point in the second. Martin hit a shot from the baseline, and Donaldson made a three-pointer just as the buzzer sounded to give Effingham some much-needed life.

Highland received a pair of layups from Lauren Maas, a three-pointer from Peyton Frey, and a three and layup from Jordan Bircher.

Schafer noted those long-range tries as the key hoops in the game.

"I thought the three three-pointers where we lost them in transition — that was the basketball game," Schafer said. "If you take those baskets away, I knew we could make a run, but I had to waste three timeouts to get them to believe."

Though ahead by 11, Effingham didn't quit.

The Hearts responded with a newfound energy after coming back from halftime.

"We have a bunch of people here that want to see you make a run, and I know that you can," said Schafer on what he told his team at the break. "I said that we got to do it defensively, and the offense will start clicking."

Effingham outscored the Bulldogs 14-7 in the third to trail by four, 29-25, heading into the fourth.

The Hearts cut the lead to four in the fourth after a Bria Beals three-point play and to three in the final frame after Donaldson did the same.

Beals made her free throw, while Donaldson missed her try, though.

"Both of those were off offensive rebounds, getting to the glass, but we also made good cuts to get on the glass like that," Schafer said. "I really liked our shot that we missed to get to that point, but when you're having trouble scoring, you have to go to the boards to get the easy baskets."

Donaldson finished with eight points, Beals with four. Martin led with 13, while Bella Austin joined Beals with four, and Averie Wolfe had two.

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