A pair of eyes focused on Vernon Hills junior Sydney Smith on Saturday.
Never mind those of Antioch defenders trying to defend the three-year varsity starter.
“That (coach) was for Syd,” Cougars junior forward Lauren Webb said of a Miami (Ohio) University coach who watched Smith and her teammates in a North Suburban Prairie Division showdown.
Pressure to produce, Sydney?
“I want to say no,” Smith said. “But yes.”
A slow start by both Smith and the Cougars didn’t prevent them from doing what they typically do: deliver in the clutch and win.
Vernon Hills captured a 45-28 decision, pulling away in the fourth quarter on its home court to improve to 12-0 and 5-0 in the NSC Prairie, while snapping Antioch’s five-game winning streak.
The Sequoits fell to 9-4 and 4-1.
“They’re really good,” Smith said. “Last year they were good, and they’re especially good this year.”
Smith has been better than good this season. She was averaging a team-best 13.8 points per game heading into Saturday’s matinee, but was held to 7 points, as she misfired on all 7 of her 3-point attempts.
Not that the presence of a Division I coach affected her.
“I just wasn’t on tonight,” said Smith, who still grabbed 8 rebounds, including 4 in the fourth quarter, when she also hit a pair of big shots.
“It happens,” she added.
That’s essentially what coach Paul Brettner told his Cougars after they struggled to knock down shots. Take away the efficiency of DePaul-bound center Meri Bennett-Swanson, who led all scorers with 16 points on 8-of-11 shooting, and Vernon Hills made only 11 of 41 field-goal tries. Fortunately for the Cougars, Antioch was 12 of 46 (26 percent) from the floor.
The Cougars were 0-for-12 from beyond the arc.
“We just survived a really bad shooting night,” Brettner said. “We got our points inside. We got our points maybe on some fast breaks.
“The good teams — the team we want to be — survives that shooting. We don’t want to lose, walk away and say, ‘Man, if only we had hit a couple of more shots.’ We didn’t have to (shoot well to win) because we played good defense, we did some other things well, we finished strong and we got some good contributions from the bench.”
While the Cougars are trying to successfully defend their division championship, they’re also looking forward to another long postseason run. For now, however, first thing is first for the 2011-12 Class 3A state runner-up.
“To us, the Prairie division is still something we’d like to win,” Brettner said. “‘A’, it’s a nice distinction. ‘B’, it gets us in the NSC title game. And you can’t tell me we’re not going to get some good games in (the division). Look at this game. Lakes is going to be dog-eat-dog with defense on Monday when we go to their place, and the second time through, (Antioch and Lakes) and North Chicago are going to give us all we can handle. Grant will be better.”
Haley Lieberman (4 steals) hit her only shot with 2:08 left before halftime to give Vernon Hills a 15-9 advantage. But sophomore Paige Gallimore (team-high 10 points, 5 rebounds, 2 steals) made her second 3-pointer and then a shot in the lane to pull the Sequoits within 15-14 at halftime.
Rachel Schwabe’s left-wing 3 in the closing seconds of the third quarter had Antioch down only 26-21. But Vernon Hills then dominated the fourth behind its Big Three of Bennett-Swanson, Webb and Smith. The trio accounted for 18 of the Cougars’ 19 points in the quarter.
Both Smith and Webb were scoreless in the first half.
“I think we adjusted to what they were doing,” said Webb, who had 9 points and 9 rebounds. “They had a great man-to-man defense going, and we’re not used to playing against that. But we kept our composure, and we just changed things up in a way that would work against their new defense.”
Antioch was still within 28-23 with 7:32 left in the fourth after 5-foot-10 freshman Kelly Johnson stuck a pullup jumper. But Webb’s three-point play and Bennett-Swanson’s basket in the lane started a 17-5 run to finish out the game.
“We were ready to play in the first half,” said coach Tim Borries, whose Sequoits were up 9-8 after one quarter thanks to Gallimore’s pullup 3, before Vernon Hills scored the first 7 points of the second quarter. “Then all of a sudden in the second half we came out and tried to run a couple of plays, and just didn’t execute them. (Vernon Hills) went up 6, 7, 8 points, and against a team like this, you can’t fall behind 6, 7, 8 points. What happens then is you got to try a little harder and you make more mistakes.”
Vernon Hills held Sequoits shooter Megan Borries to 1 field goal — a late 3-pointer.
“Haley Lieberman, Brie Bahlmann and Mady Roberts all did a great job,” Webb said. “(Lieberman) is very quick.”Copyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.