Story and photos by Chet Piotrowski Jr.

Lake Land’s Lexie Niebrugge didn’t forget No. 17 Illinois Central College had ended the No. 12 Lakers season last year.

So she wasn’t about to let that happen again.

The sophomore scored 13 of the Lakers’ 15 fourth-quarter points, leading her squad to a 69-65 victory and an appearance in the NJCAA D2 Region 24 Championship game Sunday at Laker Fieldhouse. Lake Land will face Danville Area Community College, which defeated Parkland, 69-52, in the second semifinal game.

“You know we’ll take it,” she said of her fourth quarter heroics that led to a game-high 22 points. “Our last couple games, we had Tayler Barry step up. It just depends on the game. We have several people who can step up and score for us.”

Lake Land got off to a slow start with a shot clock violation and one made free throw in the first two minutes of the contest. 

ICC took advantage of sophomore forward Cierra McNamee’s height advantage in the first half. The 6-foot forward led the team with 13 points in the first half. When she wasn’t scoring, she was passing the ball out to the corner, where undefended teammates had free reign to shoot.

“They’re a lot bigger than us obviously,” she said. “We knew we were going to have fight in the post. We knew we were going to have to fight for rebounds. They ended our season last year. They have a lot of sophomores on their team. We wanted this really bad.”

The teams battled back and forth for three quarters with neither team having more than a five-point lead.

The teams entered the final period with ICC ahead by just two points, stretching it to four by a jumper from McNamee. That would be the last time she scored.

Coincidentally, that’s when Niebrugge took over.

Niebrugge began with a 3-pointer.

Then a short jumper.

ICC sophomore guard Miya Webb then took an outlet pass on the run and appeared to coast in for a uncontested layup.

Niebrugge, seemingly appeared out of nowhere, stepped in front of Webb and planted herself firmly on the court, earning a charge call that nullified the basket.

Taking the inbound pass afterwards, Niebrugge sped down the court herself, making her layup and the ensuing free-throw attempt after being fouled to put the Lakers ahead by one.

ICC called a timeout after the Lakers’ guard scored another basket, putting the Lakers on a 5-0 run.

Niebrugge said the team didn’t purposefully go to her in the fourth quarter.

“I think it was just something we took advantage of,” she said of her having the hot hand in the fourth quarter. “We have a bunch of people that can score. We weren’t looking for one certain person to score. We just took advantage of what they gave us.”

ICC persisted.

Cougars guard Peyton Dearing sank a three from the far wing tying the game with 22 seconds remaining. Those were the first ICC points since the midway point of the fourth quarter, as Lake Land held them to just nine points.

“Defensively we got really good stops when we needed them,” she said. “I’m really proud of our team. 

Two free throws by sophomore guard Olivia Niemerg put the Lakers ahead once again elicting an ICC timeout.

Niebrugge was fouled and made both attempts, after corraling a rebound from a clean attempt by Cougars sophomore guard Laisha Armendariz. 

She wasn’t done. 

The Lakers guard, who was playing Dearing tight defensively, blocked her 3-point attempt at the buzzer. She then gathered the ball and tossed it in the air as time expired.

“Our coaches said don’t let them hit any threes,” Niebrugge said, smiling. “When she shot it, I just reached for it. I didn’t even think I was going to get it. It just went right into my hand.”

Now she was done.

“She was huge,” Lake Land women’s basketball coach Dave Johnson said of Niebrugge’s performance. “We liked the matchup of her attacking the rim. She had a forward on her where we thought she could get deep or create her own shot or kick out.”

Johnson knew it was going to be a battle after facing ICC three times this season, losing the first, and winning the next two.

“I thought ICC was super well prepared,” Johnson said. “They played their hearts out. We were just fortunate to make the last run there. It was a game of runs.”

Lakers guard Tayler Barry’s aggressive play to the basket kept Lake Land within distance of ICC in the first half. The sophomore went to the foul line five times in the first quarter alone, and nine for the game finishing with 18 points. 

“Our offense wasn’t really working like we planned,” Niebrugge said. “We got stops on defense and fought through.”

Johnson said he was unsure why the team started slow, but considered a week without game-level competition a cause.

“When you don’t play for a week and then get an opponent like that, it’s hard to emulate everything in practice. We responded. We definitely responded.”

“I don’t think there’s any secrets between us,” he said. “They know what we’re going to run and we know what they’re going to run. You have to execute really well and players have to make plays. Their kids made plays, but fortunately for us we made a couple more with those four free throws at the end. That was huge.”

ILLINOIS CENTRAL – Dearing 4 2-3 12, Webb 2 0-0 4, Armendariz 1 0-0 3, McNamee 6 3-4 15, Block 2 0-0 4, Elliott 2 0-0 6, Redgate 4 1-2 9, Gilbery 4 0-0 8. Three-pointers: Dearing 3, Armendariz 1, Elliott 2. Totals: 25 10-13 65.

LAKE LAND – Littleton 2 3-4 7, Niemerg 5 3-4 13, Hardiek 2 0-0 4, Barry 5 7-9 18, Custis 1 0-0 2, Niebrugge 7 5-6 21, Russo 2 0-0 4. Three-pointers: Barry 1, Niebrugge 2. Totals: 24 18-23 69.

Illinois Central162020965
Lake Land 2114191569