Round Lake tops Warren to reach regional title game

Amari Cole attempted two shots on Round Lake's first possession on Tuesday.

Both short jumpers smacked hard off the backboard, missing the rim by a wide mark.

After the coronavirus pandemic led to the cancellation of the playoffs last season, the Panthers' slow start was an ominous sign in their first postseason game in two years.

But the Panthers stuck to their game plan, relying on their tough defense and the steadiness of four-year senior starters, Cole and Taylor Major, and junior standout guard Lilli Burton.

In a game with a deluge of turnovers, rushed shots and sluggish play, the No. 9 seeded Panthers relied on their big three of Cole, Major and Burton to pull out a 42-34 win over No. 8 seed Warren in a Class 4A Stevenson regional semifinal girls basketball game.

Major led the Panthers (28-3) with 16 points and 10 rebounds, while Cole collected 10 points and 7 rebounds and 4 steals. Burton made three 3-pointers to finish with 10 points, 6 rebounds and 3 steals.

By knocking off the Blue Devils, the Panthers continued their magical season, which includes the most wins in a single season in program history. The Panthers have won 16 games in a row, and now attempt to knock off top-seeded Stevenson in Friday's 7 p.m. regional title game.

"I'm really proud of how they came out," Round Lake coach Molly Hennig said. "Amari got into foul trouble, but she made her presence in the second half, which was the push we needed to carry us through and then Taylor came through in the clutch.

"It's a big win, especially with our seeding. We won 28 games, so it kind of stinks we have to now go play the number one seed to win a regional. But the girls are up to the challenge, and want to prove where we belong and that 28 wins was not a fluke and it was a hard-earned season that we've had."

Burton was the X-factor in the game, hitting a pair of first-quarter 3-pointers to build some early momentum, then she buried a 3-pointer on Round Lake's second possession of the fourth quarter to pad the lead to 32-23.

"I just threw them up there and they went in," Burton said, smiling. "I just tried to help the team in any way to get a win."

The Blue Devils (15-12) were stymied by Round Lake's zone defense, which led to numerous turnovers and bad shots. The Blue Devils trailed 10-2 after the first quarter, and didn't register their first basket until 62 seconds were left in the first half.

Senior forward Grace Lynch attempted to carry the Blue Devils to a comeback win, scoring 15 of her game-high 19 points in the second half. Lynch said she attempted to pick up the slack after senior center Annika Gustafson fouled out early in the fourth quarter. Lynch scored 9 points in a two-plus minute span to slice the deficit to 39-34 with 25.8 seconds left.

"I knew I had to do something after Annika got five fouls," Lynch said. "She's our big. I put my heart out in that game."

Warren coach John Stanczykiewicz said his team was hurt by turnovers.

"We turned the ball over and beat ourselves and gave away possessions," he said. "You can't do that. The ball was coming off the rim hot today, and we just weren't quite ready for that. It's a shame. We haven't been a good outside shooting team all year and that was exposed tonight. Grace had a good game, so that's a good way to go out for a senior."

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