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Article updated: 2/19/2013 11:38 PM

Cool outcome for Vernon Hills

By Joe Aguilar

Sydney Smith walked out of Vernon Hills' locker room with ice wrapped to her left knee.

Haley Lieberman got ice to her leg, too, causing her to sit the last half of the second quarter and the first half of the third.

And 12-of-45 shooting (27 percent) from the floor and 13 of 23 (57 percent) from the stripe? That's colder than ice. That's more frigid than the wind chill outside Tuesday night.

"It's postseason basketball," Cougars coach Paul Brettner said. "Everybody is fighting tooth and nail defensively, every possession is important, and (the games) are low-scoring affairs for the most part."

Moreover, if you're playing basketball at this time of the girls season, you're hot.

A two-game losing streak in January aside, Vernon Hills has been tropical-island hot all winter. The Cougars captured their school-record 28th win and, more importantly, the top seed in its own sectional advanced to a sectional final for the second year in a row thanks to a grind-it-out, 39-26 win over fourth-seeded Grayslake Central.

Forward Lauren Webb scored a game-high 14 points (9-of-12 foul shooting), and Meri Bennett-Swanson added a double-double for Vernon Hills (28-2), which will face No. 3 Regina Dominican (22-8) in Thursday's 7:30 p.m. championship game. Regina was a 63-56 winner over 10th-seeded North Chicago in the second semifinal.

Bennett-Swanson called Tuesday's win a "steppingstone," as, despite the Cougars not playing their best game, they still got their victory.

"We got another day of practice to get ready for Thursday," Bennett-Swanson said after scoring 10 points and grabbing 12 rebounds. "I think our defense was pretty consistent, but on offense we just couldn't get things going as well as we have been in practice. We survived. That's the most important part. But definitely not pretty."

Grayslake Central, which lost to Vernon Hills in the sectional final last season and dropped a 44-37 decision to the Cougars on Nov. 27, finished 20-11. Center Morgan Dahlstrom, the Rams' only returning starter, had 7 points and 14 rebounds, while Maddy Miller had 7 points and 8 rebounds coming off the bench.

"I thought we did a lot of things that no one expected us to," said Dahlstrom, whose 12 points led Grayslake Central in its regional-final win over Antioch at Chicago Northside. "A lot of people doubted us."

Vernon Hills didn't underestimate its always fierce opponent. The Cougars led 10-5 after one quarter and extended its advantage to 19-8 late in the opening half, but the Rams refused to get blown out.

"They're not going to let us get run-outs," Brettner said. "Then it becomes a half-court game, and hopefully you find a way to score more than they do."

Miller's 3-pointer a minute into the fourth quarter had Grayslake Central within 30-24. The junior then hit another jumper after Bennett-Swanson put back her own miss to extend the margin to six again. But Vernon Hills hit enough free throws down the stretch to keep its season alive.

"They have a lot of good offensive threats, and they're good on defense," Dahlstrom said of the Cougars. "I thought our defense was strong, but offensively we struggled."

Smith, who didn't practice the last two days after tweaking her knee in the regional final at Lakes, was held to a season-low 4 points on just 2-of-4 shooting, but the junior still grabbed 8 rebounds and came up with 3 steals.

Lauren Lehocky played well coming off the bench for Vernon Hills. She contributed 2 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals and, more importantly, helped limit Dahlstrom to 3-of-8 shooting.

"She had a great game," Brettner said of Lehocky. "Morgan's such a tough player."

Point guard Carson Sparkman had 6 points and 4 steals for Grayslake Central, which shot just 25 percent (11 of 44).

"They gave it everything they got," Rams coach Steve Ikenn said of his girls. "I mean, you're holding a high-powered offense to 39 points. You got to be pleased with that."

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