By Kaleb Carter
ARLINGTON HEIGHTS — Mother McAuley sophomore guard Grace Gambotz whipped a behind-the-back bounce pass so quick that it was almost hard to grasp what happened.
Senior Bella Finnegan received the pass and let loose a smooth, nothing-but-net 3-pointer with just under two minutes remaining in the first half of an eventual 58-41 Mighty Macs win over Crystal Lake Central, played at Hersey as part of Buffalo Grove’s Bison Classic.
“We’ve just been practicing a lot over the past couple years, and I‘ve been playing with Bella for probably five or six years and I just know she gets to her spots,” Gambotz said. “I know as long as I get it there, I know she’ll hit the shot … We played feeder and elementary school together and the same AAU club (Lady Lightning).”
Even in the first week of the season, Mother McAuley is showing the ability to dissect opposing defenses, in this case, the Tigers’ quick, tricky, extended zone and press. Gambotz, at the head of the fast break, should prove troublesome for opponents for years to come. She started her season with 14 points and a flurry of assists.
“In eighth grade when she was considering Mother McAuley, you could see the potential,” Mighty Macs coach Keisha Newell said of Gambotz. “She just has so much of a skill-set already and a high basketball IQ. She’s just continuing to learn the game. Work ethic is unreal. She just makes things happen.”
On the the other end of the floor, the Mighty Macs’ intense defense, which thrived largely on defensive footwork and agility, helped create transition opportunities that should help Mother McAuley find plenty of success in the Girls Catholic Athletic Conference this season.
Finnegan was strong on the glass, and provided instant offense, starting the fast break with strong outlet passes after a rebound. The Indiana State signee helped Mother McAuley announce its continued presence among the city’s better teams, finishing with 22 points and leading the team defense.
“I’m just so proud of her because I got to see her start as a sophomore and develop and grow as a person, player all that good stuff,” Newell said. “Just incredibly proud of her, she’s a leader for us and I’m just excited to see what her future holds. I think she’s really cherishing every moment of her senior year, she really cherishes high school basketball.”
Caylin McLean provided quality minutes around the bucket as a complementary big, contributing a steady dose of rebounds that limited the Tigers’ chances. When combining the post presence of those two, and the relentless man-to-man, switching defense the Mighty Macs employ on the perimeter from guards like Maeve Egan, opposing teams will struggle all season to get comfortably into their offense.
“Our focus and our identity is our defense, so we want to be able to stop teams,” Newell said. “We feel like if we can stop teams and we rebound, then we can run and have fun on offense.”
A dogfight is near certain on most nights in GCAC play this upcoming season, and with the combo of Finnegan, Gambotz, versatile guards and some steady post play, Mother McAuley will be formidable night-in and night-out.
Crystal Lake Central’s team and supporters knew about Paige Keller’s shooting stroke, and by the end of the third quarter of Thursday’s loss to Mother McAuley, everyone else in the gym knew as well.
With the Mighty Macs threatening to run away with the game, Keller scored 14 points of her 22 points — including four three-pointers — in a span of two-and-a-half minutes, much to the happiness of the Tigers’ short, three-player bench.
“I know I can shoot it,” Keller said. “The first half, I felt the nerves, and then I didn’t feel it anymore in the second half, so I just got confidence in myself.’
Keller, a four-year varsity player, found herself nervous heading into the game.
“You would think I wouldn’t be nervous, but it’s my senior year. I want to make it count,”
A returning Northwest Herald all-area player, Keller is still looking to find a fit to continue her game collegiately. She is setting her personal sights on reaching 1,000 points, but is excited about playing a full season with her senior teammates.
She says coaches have told her they like her ability to catch-and-shoot, which was on full display (she sank five triples, most of which came from the left corner). She also feels her vision to make cuts into the heart of the defense is an asset for CLC and any prospective college programs.. Rebounding and becoming an all-around, stronger, better player are personal points of interest to her.
“More than half of our team is seniors,” Keller said. “I’ve been through four years of school with them and we just have this connection.”
Several upperclassmen Tigers were missing due to injury, so Keller was optimistic the team would make strides in the coming games. They ran a tricky 1-2-2 defensive look in the half-court and full-court with an athletic group of upperclassmen. Senior guard/wing Courtney Schober and sophomore Kathryn Hamill (10 points vs. Mother McAuley) created good-looking shots all night.
Keller and the Tigers left Hersey’s gym with plenty of reason for optimism.