NORMAL — Sydney Smith needed a moment to grasp the magnitude of what her team just accomplished.
OK, maybe a few.
“I think it's going to come in a second,” said the Vernon Hills junior, who paused, then added, “I still can't even believe that we got second last year.”
The Cougars are hunting for more now.
Dashing three-time defending state champion and No. 1-ranked Montini's historic four-peat quest, Vernon Hills saw an 11-point fourth-quarter lead slip away, then regrouped in overtime for a stunning 48-45 win in Friday's Class 3A semifinal at Redbird Arena.
Vernon Hills (31-2) advances to Saturday's 2 p.m. final against two-time defending Class 2A champ Quincy Notre Dame, a 67-51 winner over Morton.
Few expected Vernon Hills to knock off Montini, not after losing to the Broncos 56-38 in last year's state championship that was all but decided in a 31-10 first half. Most at Redbird probably expected the Cougars to roll over in overtime to surging Montini.
The Cougars had other ideas.
“People could think what they want,” Vernon Hills senior Meri Bennett-Swanson said. “We're a team that shows a lot of composure. We just stuck to the game plan.”
“We're a team that finishes,” Smith said. “When you're playing a really really good team you know they're going to make runs. In the end it came down to who finishes, who gets stops, who makes free throws and that's what we did.”
That's really what Lauren Webb did. The Cougars junior knocked down a pair of tying free throws with 42 seconds left in regulation, then hit all 6 attempts in overtime. In Monday's supersectional win over Burlington Central, Webb was 5-for-5 at the line in the fourth quarter.
“We do a lot of drills in practice with the same kind of — well, similar kind of pressure as today,” said Webb, who led all scorers with 21 points and was 12 of 14 on free throws.
The game was methodical and low-scoring, much like Montini's only other loss of the season to Peoria Richwoods in December.
The Broncos (34-2) came in riding a 26-game playoff win streak, but with ice-cold 5-of-20 shooting trailed for just the third time at halftime all year as Vernon Hills took a 17-14 lead into the break.
A jumper as time expired in the third quarter by Bennett-Swanson gave the Cougars a 35-24 lead, but Montini wasn't done yet.
Baskets by Sara Ross and Kateri Stone started the fourth quarter, and down 37-30 Montini reeled off a 10-1 run, taking its first lead since the first quarter at 40-38 on Kelly Karlis' driving layup with 1:21 left.
Karlis scored all 18 of her points in the fourth quarter and overtime. But Webb's free throws tied it, and Vernon Hills never trailed in overtime after Alina Lehocky's offensive rebound and score a minute in.
Vernon Hills outrebounded Montini 50-23, turning 21 offensive rebounds into 18 second-chance points.
“Offensive rebounding hurt us, and we missed shots,” Montini coach Jason Nichols said. “Vernon Hills had a great game plan, and we struggled. We struggled in all phases of the game.”
Montini had one last gasp after Vernon Hills missed a pair of free throws with 12.6 seconds left in overtime, but Brie Bahlmann got a finger on to deflect Lea Kerstein's corner 3 for the tie in the closing seconds.
“After all that happened, it still came down to one last shot,” Nichols said. “There's only so many times you can battle back.”
Stone added 10 points for Montini, which plays Morton at noon today in the third-place game. Smith and Lehocky each scored 7 for Vernon Hills. It's the second year in a row the Cougars sprung a semifinal shocker. Last year, they knocked off Springfield before losing to Montini in the 3A final.
“It's amazing. We got a taste of it last year, and I know the girls wanted to come back,” Vernon Hills coach Paul Brettner said. “We had a great run last year, and we learned a lot from last year's game.”
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