Lilly dissolved in tears Tuesday night after the sixth-ranked Xavier Saints trimmed 13th-ranked Waverly-Shell Rock, 42-38, in the regional finals to earn a trip to the Class 4A state tournament.
Lilly hugged long-time assistant coach and pal Stephanie Potts after the buzzer sounded in the intense ballgame and he needed his trademark blue towel to wipe away the tears.
"It's always a special moment," Lilly said after getting his emotions under control. "I just felt our seniors have given us so much this year.
"I knew that at the end of it, somebody was going to be extremely disappointed because it was very hard-fought, it was back and forth, neither team was going to given an inch.
"And we just happened to prevail with a 14-year-old," he said with a wry smile. That's pretty amazing on how that all works out."
Freshman Caitlynn Daniels is actually 15 now, but the rookie made two of the biggest plays in the game in the final minute with the state berth on the line.
Her driving layup with 29 seconds left snapped a 38-38 tie and gave the Saints a 40-38 advantage, and then she promptly stole the ball at the other end with 11 seconds remaining.
"I knew that we had to go to the hoop when we had the chance, because Waverly had tough defense," Daniels said about her game-winning shot. "I saw the ball coming and I knew I had to go for it."
Senior Lexi Noonan clinched the victory with two cold-blooded free throws with 3.6 seconds left to make it 42-38 and punch Xavier's ticket to the state tournament with their 10th straight win.
Xavier (17-6) will face Grinnell (19-4) in the opening round on Tuesday, Feb. 28 at 8:30 p.m. at the Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines. The Saints are seeded No. 6 for the tournament and Grinnell is seeded No. 3.
Daniels has been Xavier's starting point guard all season and has done a remarkable job for a ninth grader. A few weeks ago Lilly told the unselfish freshman to take more shots and she accepted the challenge in the biggest game of the year.
Daniels, Noonan and the rest of the Saints celebrated the victory with gusto.
"It's pretty cool, I'm not going to lie," said Daniels.
Noonan, a cool customer, led Xavier with 18 points. She missed four free throws along the way, but hit nothing but net to secure the victory in the final seconds.
"It's awesome. It's an incredible feeling," she said. "Our season has led up to this moment. It's awesome to have the hard work pay off."
Waverly-Shell Rock (16-7) had committed only two fouls in the second half after Daniels stole the ball with 11 seconds remaining, so they either had to steal the ball or commit enough fouls to send the Saints to the free throw line and hope they missed to have a chance.
Waverly fouled Daniels with 10.2 seconds left for their third team foul. They fouled Daniels again with 8.7 seconds left for their fourth. They fouled Daniels again with 8.4 seconds left for their fifth, and they got Daniels again with 6.3 seconds left for their sixth.
In each case, Noonan successfully passed the ball in-bounds to Daniels, which was no easy feat.
Noonan passed the ball to Daniels again, but this time the ball deflected off Daniels' hands and was loose on the floor. If Waverly had recovered they might have had time for a shot to tie the game, but the lanky 5-foot-11 Noonan had other ideas.
"I threw it off her hand and I was like, 'I've got to get this back,' so I went and dove for it on the ground," said Noonan, who recovered the loose ball like a Xavier football player diving on a fumble.
Waverly fouled Noonan, she hit both shots and that was that.
The final minute of the game could have gone either way. Both teams played well enough to win, but only the Saints are marching on.
"It was stressful," Noonan said about the final minute. "Like the saying that times goes a lot slower? That's what it felt like. It felt like each second took an hour."
The Saints had a rare losing season last year when they finished 10-13, which is one of the reasons Lilly got so emotional after the game.
"I love it for our senior class," he said. "They've really put in a lot of hard work. We had a tough year last year and a number of these kids had to go through a losing season.
"We took a mantra of 'All In' and everybody needed to be 'All In' if we were going to get this thing done."
It got a little dicey for the Saints in the first half when Amelia Ivester, their 6-foot-2 shot-blocker, and Daniels were both charged with three personal fouls, but the official scorer discovered a mistake during halftime and subtracted one of the fouls from Daniels.
It's a lot easier to play with two fouls than three fouls, and Daniels was able to breathe a little easier.
"That was a huge opportunity for her to play her game and do the things that she's been capable of doing all season long and it made a huge difference," Lilly noted.
Kiana Stanek, best known as a 3-point specialist for the Saints, had two huge steals for layups in the game and contributed six points. She also played good defense against a taller opponent.
"Kiana Stanek was tough as nails," said Lilly. "She was amazing."
Emily Jasper came off the bench to contribute six points with a big put-back and four clutch free throws, Maddix Stovie had a big bucket off the bench and Maria Steffen also gave the Saints some good minutes in a reserve role.
Ivester and Brown, a pair of starters, scored only two points apiece, but both of them blocked several shots with the game hanging in the balance. It added up to a team victory in the truest sense.
Jayme Willemseen and Payton Draper led Waverly-Shell Rock with 10 points apiece.
Noonan helped the Xavier volleyball tournament reach the semifinals of the state tournament in November and now she's headed to another state tournament in basketball.
"A dream come true, that's for sure," she said.
Xavier won its four state titles in 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2013 with Lilly calling the shots, all in odd-numbered years. It's an odd-numbered year again in 2017, which could be a good omen for the Saints.
"You never know," said Lilly. "You have to get there first, and once you get there it becomes a three-step affair."
The Marion Indians also qualified for the state tournament Tuesday night and are in a different bracket from the Saints. If Marion and Xavier meet in Des Moines, it would be in the championship game on Saturday, March 4 at 6 p.m.
The Class 4A state tournament begins Tuesday with Nevada (22-1) facing North Scott (18-5) at 6:45 p.m., followed by Xavier against Grinnell at 8:30 p.m.
The 4A tourney resumes next Wednesday with Marion (22-1) against Boone (19-5) at 10 a.m., followed by Pella (19-4) against Lewis Central (22-1) at 11:45 a.m.
The semifinals are scheduled for Friday, March 3. The Saints would play at 10 a.m. and Marion would play at 11:45 a.m. if they both advance.
Nevada is the No. 1 seed and Marion is the No. 2 seed.
WAVERLY-SHELL ROCK (38): Phillips 0 1-2 1, B.Young 0 0-0 0, K.Young 0 2-2 2, Reyerson 3 0-0 6, Byl 0 0-0 0, Willemssen 4 2-3 10, Draper 4 1-2 10, Harken 2 2-4 8, Thier 0 1-2 1. Totals 13 9-15 38.
XAVIER (42): Stanek 3 0-0 6, Daniels 3 0-0 6, Brown 1 0-0 2, Noonan 6 6-10 18, Steffen 0 0-0 0, Stovie 1 0-0 2, Ivester 1 0-0 2, Jasper 1 4-4 6. Totals 16 10-14 42.
Halftime - Xavier 23, Waverly-Shell Rock 19. 3-point goals - Waverly-Shell Rock 3 (Harken 2, Draper 1), Xavier none.
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