TUSCOLA — Esther Miller kept reading the eyes on defense and sagging off of her assignment.
She knew a pass was coming and her time to jump into the lane would be there. Sure enough, with less than 10 seconds left in the third quarter on Monday in the Class 2A Tuscola Sectional semifinals, her chance came. She burst into the lane, got the steal and took it all the way for a layup on the other end with two seconds left in the third quarter.
The play lit a fire in her team and capped off a massive third quarter. The Redskins kept pace in the fourth quarter and forced Albion Edwards County into every turnover imaginable on the way to a 65-43 win to advance to Thursday's sectional championship against Teutopolis.
“I think it gave us momentum going into the fourth quarter and I think it helped us all take it up another level," Miller said.
Sullivan opened the fourth quarter on a 12-4 run to lead 52-38 with less than four minutes left. The momentum from Miller's steal carried over with ease and the Redskins made life difficult for Edwards County to get shots up.
“The momentum was kind of shifted right there," Sullivan coach Sheri McCain said. "She’s been our catalyst all season. Being a senior, she knew what she needed to do. She got that steal and the rest of the team followed. From there, she just kind of put them on her back."
Miller finished with 14 points, Avery Still had 19 and freshman Lilly Null poured in 17 points for Sullivan (26-3). After turning the ball over 14 times in the first half, Sullivan trailed 23-18 at halftime, largely with Miller and Still on the bench in foul trouble. Miller was frustrated, but not panicked while she watched from the bench.
“I was really frustrated," Miller said. "I do not want to end my season sitting on the bench. I knew that we would make a come back in the second half. I know my team. I know we weren’t going to lose and we weren’t going to let ourselves lose."
Though the steal and layup to beat the third quarter buzzer was a pivotal moment for the Redskins, Miller actually felt the tide turn before that. It took less than two minutes for Sullivan to wipe away a halftime deficit and take a lead in the third quarter behind a pair of baskets from Miller and a putback from Still.
In that moment, with a lead in hand, Miller knew her team had it.
"I feel like we just kind of took over from there," Miller said.
Sullivan completely flipped the script in the second half, forcing 26 Edwards County turnovers and outscored the Lions 47-20 after halftime. Sullivan had 14 first-half turnovers and just 10 in the second half.
“Our philosophy has been all year: It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish," Sullivan coach Sheri McCain said. "I knew if we could survive with Avery and Esther on the bench in the first half, I figured that being down by five points and our leading scorer (Miller) sitting there that we had some hope."
Without Miller and Still in the first half, Null stepped in, scoring six of her 17 before halftime. She knocked down all nine of her free throw attempts in the game. Defensively, Josie Orris and Jerra Goad stepped in to try to slow Edwards County's Malia Schmittler, who had 16 points and 10 rebounds.
“The first half, we just let them speed us up," Miller said. "We weren’t playing our game at all. Me and Avery Still, we got in foul trouble early on, which is always a bad thing. We had to had some of the girls step in for us. They did a pretty good job holding on."
Null, though, wasn't fazed by a big game as a freshman. She broke the Lions' press, passed the ball around with ease and drilled her free throws. She did it all while battling a cold and getting tissues on the sidelines to cure a runny nose.
“I wasn’t feeling too good the last couple days, but you’ve got to come out and you’ve got to play with anything," Null said. "You’ve got to push through."
Eventually, Sullivan got to the Edwards County bench and had the game all but sealed.
“They cranked up their defense and we really didn’t have a good answer for them," Edwards County coach Johnathan Henton said. "They’re long and athletic and we’re short and athletic. Long and athletic usually ends up trumping. I didn’t really have an answer for them. Their coach did a good job on that."
By the midway through the fourth quarter, the Sullivan defense had done enough to unofficially seal its spot in the sectional championship. With 3 minutes, 30 seconds left in the game, McCain called a timeout. The team rushed into the huddle and Miller yelled upon entering. It was almost as if they knew a re-match with Teutopolis, which ended their season last year, was on the horizon.
“We took it one possession at a time," McCain said. "We’ve been down before a couple times this season, so they kind of know what that’s like to be down."