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Peoria Notre Dame, Illini Bluffs teams set their sights on schools' first girls basketball state titles

Basketballs with the IHSA's "March Madness" logo are shown on a rack.
WCBU file photo
The Illinois High School Association's girls basketball state finals are this weekend at CEFCU Arena in Normal. The Peoria Notre Dame and Illini Bluffs teams will be seeking their first state championships.

A pair of Peoria-area high school girls basketball teams will make program history this weekend in Normal.

Peoria Notre Dame and Illini Bluffs are in the IHSA state semifinals for the first time and guaranteed to come home from CEFCU Arena with a trophy. The Irish and Tigers now hope that trophy is the championship variety.

Thursday’s first matchup on the Illinois State University campus pits Illini Bluffs against Altamont in a Class 1A semifinal that tips off at 9:30 a.m. Top-ranked PND takes on Regina Dominican in the first Class 2A semifinal at 2 p.m.

Notre Dame improved to 32-4 by notching its 10th consecutive win Monday, posting a 55-39 win over Rock Island Alleman in the Bureau Valley Super-Sectional. The Irish are now 82-12 over the past three seasons, but their last two postseason runs ended with losses to Washington in Class 3A regional finals.

Irish coach Layne Langholf dismissed a suggestion that PND benefitted from being a perennial 3A power playing in a smaller class, pointing to a schedule that included 15 ranked opponents.

“Our kids definitely accepted the challenge of playing the best from around the state, in all four classes,” said Langholf, whose team features four 6-foot players and two others at 5-11. “Honestly, I think we probably would have been pretty decent in 3A.

“We're not built like a typical 2A team, with our size and length. But at this point, it continues to be a one-game scenario with 15, 16, 17-year olds. We're just trying to prepare our kids for the next challenge.”

The PND lineup features senior Eastern Kentucky recruit Mya Wardle (13.5 points per game) and her freshman sister Emy (8.9), the daughters of Bradley men’s basketball coach Brian Wardle. Joining them are juniors Julia Mingus (11.3) and Kaitlyn Cassidy (10.3) and sophomore Lexi Baer (11.9).

“We've got a lot of scoring options, but our style of play honestly is that defensively we just try to speed teams up and make them play faster than they want to and (feel) more uncomfortable,” said Langholf.

The Irish have never reached the semifinals before, with the program’s best finish coming in a run to the quarterfinals 30 years ago.

Meanwhile, Illini Bluffs improved to 31-4 with an upset of 1A No. 1 Galena in the Brimfield Super-Sectional. The Tigers, who have also won 10 in a row, are looking to top a third-place finish in 2012.

“Every game, no matter who we're playing – the best team on our schedule, the worst team on our schedule – every message is to focus on what's right in front of us,” said fourth-year Illini Bluffs coach Jim Belville.

“Offensively we want to take care of the basketball and get a good shot every time; whether the ball goes in or not, really, is out of our control. Then on the defensive end, we talk over and over about just making teams take tough shots, and only allowing them one shot.”

Forward Lily Luczkowiak leads the Illini Bluffs offense, averaging 19.5 points per game. Guard Annabelle Fortin adds a 9.2 scoring average in an all-senior starting lineup that’s rounded out by Brooke Buchen, Reese Cruit and Marissa Robertson.

“This senior group is extremely special to me,” said Belville, who coached the junior high team before taking over the varsity coaching duties. “They're the last class that I will have coached from sixth grade all the way through. I’ve spent seven years with these kids, so we have a great bond together.”

Updated: February 29, 2024 at 4:48 PM CST
Both Peoria Notre Dame and Illini Bluffs won their respective semifinal games Thursday and will play for the state championships.

The Tigers posted a 60-48 win over Altamont in the first Class 1A game at CEFCU Arena. Lily Luczkowiak scored 27 points while Annabelle Fortin added 12 and Chloe Eeten 11.

Illini Bluffs will face Okawville for the 1A championship at 11 a.m. Saturday. The Rockets topped Peru St. Bede, 44-30.

In Class 2A, the top-ranked Irish rolled to a 71-25 triumph over Wilmette Regina Dominican. PND jumped out to a 16-5 lead in the first quarter and extended that to 33-9 by halftime.

Lexi Baer led the Irish with 18 points, followed by Julia Mingus with 17 and Kaitlin Cassidy with 10.

PND advanced to Saturday's 1 p.m. Class 2A final and will face Nashville, a 52-36 winner over Robinson in the second semifinal.
Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.