Senior and four-year starter Grace Carstensen experienced something new with only 30 seconds left in her final game for the Nazareth Academy girls basketball team for the IHSA Class 3A girls state championship on March 4 in Normal.
She fouled out.
“I think that’s my first time – ever – in high school,” Carstensen said.
Perhaps it happened for a reason. Carstensen could step back soak up her greatest moment with the Roadrunners – the first state championship in program history.
Nazareth sealed the deal by beating previously undefeated Lincoln 63-52 after finishing second in Class 3A last year with most of the same players. They also finished second in 2018 and third in 2019.
Carstensen is the only senior starter for the Roadrunners (35-1), who finished undefeated against Illinois opponents, and the only senior on the roster. The 5-foot-11 guard will play basketball at DePaul.
“It was almost surreal [to win], being on the opposite side last year. I don’t even believe it. It’s one of the best feelings ever. You can’t beat that,” Carstensen said. “All of the hard work that I’ve put in and that the team has put in, especially this season, working towards not being on the other side, and seeing it all come together is so meaningful.
Junior and third-year starter Olivia Austin led the Roadrunners’ inside dominance with one of her biggest double-doubles (23 points, 12 rebounds). Carstensen (three 3-pointers, 5 steals) and junior Mary Bridget Wilson each had 11 points, junior Amalia Dray had 10 points and junior Danielle Scully had eight points and five rebounds.
Head coach Eddie Stritzel has coached all four trophy teams and achieved his 400th high-school coaching victory this season.
“As everybody knows, we had a goal at the end of last year. I told them we have a great chance to win this year but we’re not going to let it get to us. We’re going to play loose and I’m going to coach loose,” Stritzel said. “I couldn’t be any happier for this group of girls.”
The Roadrunners especially were motivated by their 2022 state title loss to Carmel 43-39 after beating their East Suburban Catholic Conference rivals twice during the regular season.
“It was probably one of the most devastating moments of my basketball career, for [my teammates] as well. It just sticks with you,” Carstensen said.
The 6-foot Austin, a three-sport athlete, also was part of Nazareth’s first girls volleyball state championship in 2021 and its second-place finisher in November that lost to St. Francis 25-23, 25-23 in the final.
“I’d say we were all equally motivated because we all had the taste of what it was like [losing in the final],” Austin said. “I’m super lucky, of course, and I feel like every time we get back, it’s equally exciting. Especially for basketball, everyone knew this trip was business and we were just focused the entire time.”
The Roadrunners led Lincoln (36-1) at halftime 31-25 and opened the third quarter with a 13-0 run for a 44-25 advantage. Carstensen nailed a 3-pointer to open the half and the other four starters scored baskets during the run. The Railsplitters got as close as 59-50 with 1:20 left.
Even with tight officiating, Nazareth gave another superlative defensive effort, limiting Lincoln junior all-stater Kloe Proebe to 19 points on four field goals. Proebe was averaging 28.4 points and scored a state-finals record 45 points in their 76-56 semifinal victory over Deerfield on March 3. Dray, Scully and Wilson finished with four fouls.
“We have what we call our offensive ‘lemon,’ so we were screaming to squeeze her all of the time,” Scully said.
Carstensen led Nazareth in scoring (11.8 ppg) and 3-pointers (90), but Dray (11.3 ppg), Austin (8.7), Scully (7.5) and Sakalas (7.0) also were consistent scorers.
Carstensen credited her two key third-quarter steals in the finals to the up-top work of Dray and Wilson in the Roadrunners’ swarming 2-3 zone defense.
The Roadrunners held 26 opponents to fewer than 40 points.
“I’ve been very fortunate to be in basketball my whole life, and I don’t know if I’ve seen a better defensive team than we’ve had all year,” Stritzel said.
Other team members are juniors June Foley, Mackenzie Kulovic, Audrey Moster and Katie Wilson, sophomores Grace Gray, Josie Wagner and freshmen Jane Manecke and Lyla Shelton.
Foley, Shelton and Manecke also saw action in the finals and in the 48-35 semifinal victory on March 3 over third-place Peoria (29-4). Trailing 14-5 in the second quarter, the Roadrunners responded with a 22-1 run to lead 37-15 late in the third quarter. Scully (14 points, 7 rebounds), Dray (11 points) and Austin (9 points, 12 rebounds) led Nazareth.
Carstensen was named first-team all-state in Class 3A by the Associated Press and second-team all-state by the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association.
Dray was AP second-team and IBCA third-team. Austin was AP honorable mention all-state. Austin, Scully and freshman Stella Sakalas were IBCA special mention all-state.
The Roadrunners won their first regular-season ESCC title and second straight ESCC Tournament championship. Carstensen, Austin, Dray and Scully were All-ESCC.
“We all just know how to come together and be calm, which is one of the things I’ll remember most about this team — the way we we’re able to play with each other and get along outside and inside the court,” Carstensen said.