Alina Lehocky and Meri Bennett-Swanson kept jumping, finessing, fighting and grabbing rebound after rebound.
But all that mattered for the two Vernon Hills seniors was what they held so tightly following the top-seeded Cougars’ 42-30 win over No. 3 Regina Dominican in the teams’ Class 3A sectional final at Vernon Hills on Thursday night.
A string of basketball net.
The Cougars tickled the two nets in their own gym just amply to earn a return trip to a supersectional.
If you’re counting — and the Cougars are — that’s five nets they’ve cut down after state tournament games since last year.
“This adds to our collection,” Lehocky said.
“I have all of them in a little bottle at home,” Bennett-Swanson said. “I collect them all.”
The defending Class 3A state runner-up seeks a sixth net Monday night, as Vernon Hills (29-2) will play Burlington Central (27-4) in the Hoffman Estates supersectional at 7:30 p.m. Burlington Central defeated Sterling 49-26 in Thursday night’s Genoa-Kingston sectional final.
“It’s really exciting, especially it being senior year,” Lehocky said.
Lehocky’s effort against Regina Dominican (22-9)?
Usually the Cougars’ first player off the bench, “Go Go Gadget Arms,” as her teammates call her, started the game and provided instant energy. Lehocky scored the game’s first two baskets on putbacks, and finished the game with 15 rebounds and 8 points.
“A senior, a sectional final in her own gym — I think she deserved (the start),” Vernon Hills coach Paul Brettner said. “She made me look smart.”
Lehocky just did her thing.
“Starting or not, you just got to bring your game, or anything can happen,” she said. “Either way, you got to come out with energy, and our whole team did.”
Bennett-Swanson was the Cougars’ only double-digit scorer with 10 points and also grabbed 12 rebounds and blocked 3 shots. Lauren Webb added 9 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 blocks. Sydney Smith (8 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists), Brie Bahlmann (9 rebounds, 3 points) and Haley Lieberman (4 points, 3 rebounds) also made big contributions in helping Vernon Hills extend its winning streak to 11 games.
Regina Dominican shot just 12 of 60 (20 percent), including 4 of 24 from beyond the arc. It didn’t help the Panthers that they were usually one shot and done. While sophomore center Maggie Palmer had a team-high 6 rebounds for the visitors, five Cougars had at least that many.
“It was a hard shooting night, but I think we played with as much effort as I could have asked them to play with,” coach Kerry Durham said of her Panthers. “The ball just didn’t go in.”
Bennett-Swanson was particularly aggressive on the boards in the final three quarters after collecting just 1 board in the opening quarter. Her second-half play helped the Cougars slowly build on their lead after they led just 20-16 at halftime.
“I had kind of a slow start,” the 6-foot-2 center said. “I was like, ‘How am I going to get myself centered? Maybe I can just rebound the ball, to get myself into .’ Rebounding and talking on defense help me center and focus on offense.”
Vernon Hills didn’t make it easy for Regina to shoot, whether the Panthers launched from the perimeter or tried to muscle up baskets down low. The Cougars blocked 8 shots.
“They’re really long and big, and I think they pushed our tempo a little bit,” Durham said. “We were rushing our shots a little too much.”
Back-to-back 3-pointers by Webb and Smith in the third quarter helped the Cougars stretch their lead from 22-18 to 28-18, and baskets by Lehocky and Lieberman capped a 10-0 run.
Vernon Hills limited Regina to single-digit points in every quarter. Panthers guard Erin Gavin led all scorers with 13 points.
“We thought they’d run more because they ran a lot against North Chicago (in the sectional semifinal),” Brettner said. “But I think we got back enough.”Copyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.