Top-ranked Winnebago again eliminates Byron, claims girls basketball sectional title

Jay Taft
Rockford Register Star
Winnebago's players and coaches celebrate as the clock winds down to zero on the 50-38 victory over Byron in the Johnsburg Sectional finals on Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022.

JOHNSBURG — For the fourth year in a row, Winnebago bounced Byron out of the postseason.

This time it came with a sectional title on the line.

"This was one of those real gut-check moments for us," said star guard Miyah Brown after she sparked Winnebago's game-ending 12-point run in a 50-38 win over Byron in Class 2A Johnsburg Sectional final on Thursday.

"And we played our hearts out at the end there," Brown said. "We just kept telling ourselves 'We got this. We are not going to lose this.' "

Brown scored 20 points, 14 in the second half, and she added six rebounds and four steals as No. 1-ranked Winnebago (33-2) advanced to its second supersectional in the past three years. Fresh off its 56-29 beatdown of Aurora Central Catholic in a Wednesday semifinal, Winnebago would not be denied late. It scored the final 12 points of the night after the game was tied at 38-all with 5:57 left to play.

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"Once we got to playing some defense there at the end, we really came together," Winnebago coach Judy Krause said. "Byron came right out and went after us, and we knew they would. They were tough ... But what a finish."

Winnebago advances to face Chicago DePaul College Prep, another No. 1 sectional seed, at 7 p.m. Monday in the Elgin Supersectional. The winner will advance to Thursday's state quarterfinal game in Normal.

Byron (27-5), which came in hot following a 57-24 blasting of Johnsburg in a Wednesday semi, jumped out to a 7-0 lead and led by six late in the second quarter. But the Tigers couldn't put Brown and Winnebago away.

In the fourth straight Sweet 16 appearance for Winnebago, it came down to the end. Byron's power forward Ella Grundstrom left the game with four fouls early in the fourth quarter, and Winnebago took off from there. Senior Renee Rittmeyer, who scored six points, had six rebounds and added five steals, turned an offensive rebound in points to kickstart the closing run for Winnebago.

"We were in a battle there; we knew Byron was coming for us," Rittmeyer said. "But we kind of re-grouped at half, and we came out and kind of said, 'OK, we're back.'

"This team just never gives up. We don't know how."

Winnebago's only two losses of the season came in a five-day stretch from Jan. 15 (57-45 to Peoria Notre Dame) to Jan. 20 (65-51 to to Arlington Heights St. Viator), but it has now won 12 straight since.

But this one didn't come easy. Winnebago didn't enjoy its first lead until it was 28-26 with 5:14 to go in the third quarter.

Winnebago's Miyah Brown looks at the hoop during a game against Byron on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022, in Byron. The two teams met up for the sectional title on Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022.

Winnebago defeated Byron 65-43 on Jan. 19 as well, and it has now handed Byron its only two losses in an 18-game stretch. But this one ended its season.

"There were just a lot of dead balls and loose balls in that fourth quarter, and they were just a little bit quicker, just a little bit stronger," Byron coach Eric Yerly said. "We punched first, but we knew they weren't going to just go away ... We knew they were coming."

Ava Kultgen, who had 27 points in the semis after scoring 29 in the quarterfinals, finished with a team-high 12 points Thursday.

Jay Taft is a Rockford Register Star sports reporter. Email him at jtaft@rrstar.com and follow him on Twitter at @JayTaft. Sign up for the Rockford High School newsletter at rrstar.com.