MOUNT CARMEL - Wednesday's game between Southern Columbia and Mount Carmel had a little bit of everything.
There was stifling defense, scoring spurts, an unlikely hero and a potential changing of the guard in Division II of the Heartland Conference.
When all was said and done, Southern Columbia, a newcomer to the division, had knocked off two-time defending division champ Mount Carmel, 44-39, on the Tornadoes' own floor.
The game started inauspiciously enough with 32 combined turnovers (one approximately every 30 seconds) and a 10-9 lead for the Tigers in the first half.
With a packed gym, a pep band and the intensity of a rivalry game, both teams were far from their best. The Tigers and Tornadoes shot a combined 6-of-45 and the area's top two scorers, Southern's Kayla Lavella and Mount Carmel's Ali Varano, were held scoreless in the half.
"In the first half, we just couldn't make a basket and that buried us a little bit and we couldn't recover," Mount Carmel head coach Lisa Varano said.
"If you would have told me it would be 10-9 at half, I think I would have said, 'No way.' You get an atmosphere with a big crowd and both teams were a little jittery. We threw the ball all over the place and that hurt us."
Neither team could keep up with the frenetic pace set in the first half, but that didn't stop Southern from pressing the matter to start the third quarter.
The Tigers turned a one-point game into a 10-point lead by using the press and Mount Carmel helped out by shooting 25 percent from the field in the quarter.
"I didn't think it was going to be a defensive battle, but I think this might go down as one of the best defensive games I've been a part of," Southern Columbia head coach Kevin Collins said.
The key to Southern's run, in which it scored on seven of its first nine possessions to start the second half, was Lavella, who scored six of the Tigers' 13 points during the run.
But Mount Carmel had a secret weapon - Isabella Stellar.
Stellar, a sophomore, scored 14 of the Tornadoes' next 23 points, including a 3-pointer to tie the game at 25-25 with 6:53 left, and another three on the next possession to give Mount Carmel its first lead since the second quarter. Her final three tied the game at 32-32 with 3:06 left. She finished with a team and career-high 16 points.
"She had a great game," Lisa Varano said. "She's been coming along every game and in practice she works hard. She was a spark tonight and I'm proud of the way she's played."
Stellar's shooting brought the Tigers' defense to the perimeter, a noted difference from their philosophy early in the game when they got killed on the glass and Christina Perles did most of her damage, with 15 points and nine rebounds.
"I felt we needed to pack it in and make them shoot it from the cheap seats," Collins said.
Southern rallied in the paint and outrebounded Mount Carmel 30-22 the rest of the way, not because of size, but from hustle.
"Every team we play, we're outsized," Collins said. "We have to box out and I thought we did better at that in the second half and we rebounded well. That's probably what won the game for us."
Tigers' senior Mallory Tomaschik was the epitome of that hustle with 12 points and 14 rebounds.
And unlike last week when foul shooting failed the Tigers down the stretch against Danville, Tomaschik was able to drain a pair of attempts to push a three-point lead to five in the closing seconds.
"We had to lose a close one to win a close one," Collins said.
Round two between the Tigers and Tornadoes is Saturday, Feb. 2 at Southern.
SOUTHERN COLUMBIA (44) - Clark 1 2-6 4, Lavella 6 4-4 17, Blass 3 0-0 6, Tomaschik 3 5-9 12, Levan 2 1-3 5, Lyash 0 0-0 0, Gilroy 0 0-0 0. Totals 15 12-22 44.
MOUNT CARMEL (39) - Bolick 0 0-0 0, Hornung 0 2-2 2, Varano 0 0-0 0, Perles 5 4-6 15, Stellar 6 1-2 16, Nestico 0 0-0 0, Raybuck 3 0-0 6. Totals 14 7-10 39.
3-point FGs: Lavella, Tomaschik, Perles, Stellar 3.