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Vernon Hills repels Cary-Grove upset bid

12/29/2012, 9:07pm CST
By Tim Froehlig

Vernon Hills held on for a dramatic 50-47 decision over Cary-Grove Saturday night in the championship game of the Mundelein Holiday Classic Tournament.

Saturday night’s championship game between Cary-Grove and undefeated Vernon Hills at the Mundelein Holiday Classic Tournament resembled a heavyweight title fight as much as it did a girls basketball game.

In the end, it was Vernon Hills who held on for a dramatic 50-47 decision — and the tourney crown —thanks in large part to a remarkable shooting performance down the stretch.

The Cougars improved to 18-0 overall this season by making all 17 of their free-throw attempts in the fourth quarter and finishing a perfect 20-for-20 from the foul line on the night.

Vernon Hills coach Paul Brettner let out a huge smile after the final horn sounded, then admitted his club’s accomplishment from the charity stripe was unlike anything he’d ever seen, especially given the circumstances.

“When our kids shoot free throws, I expect them to make a large percentage of them,” Brettner said. “But I don’t know that I expect to make them all. That was just fantastic.”

There were several turning points in the game.

Despite having lost to Vernon Hills by 11 points in a 9 a.m. contest just two days earlier, Cary-Grove stormed out to a 7-2 lead in the first quarter. But a pair of three-pointers by Cougars junior Sydney Smith (14 points) on consecutive ensuing possessions midway through the period gave Vernon Hills the lead back momentarily.

From that point on, neither team led by more than four points until early in the second half. Vernon Hills was ahead just 18-16 at the break.

Cary-Grove went on an 11-2 run to open the third quarter, thanks to the hot hand of Joslyn Nicholson (12 points, six rebounds). Nicholson connected on all three of her field goal attempts — and her lone free throw — in the quarter, giving the Trojans a 27-20 advantage.

However, the Cougars finished the final two minutes of the quarter on a 5-0 run of their own, trailing by two heading into the fourth.

In the fourth, Vernon Hills senior guard Brie Bahlmann (team-high 15 points, five rebounds, four assists) put on a show by making both of her field goal attempts plus all seven of her free throw tries. Teammate Lauren Webb (10 points) also made all six of her foul attempts in the fourth, including a pair that gave the Cougars a 48-44 lead that appeared to ice things with 14.4 seconds remaining.

But again, the Trojans refused to quit. A Cary-Grove three-pointer from the corner with 6 seconds to go cut Vernon Hills’ lead to just a point, 48-47. After being fouled on the ensuing inbounds pass, Smith swished a pair of free throws with 2.2 seconds left.

“Honestly, I was nervous,” admitted Smith, who sported a small shiner from the game’s physical style under her left eye. “When I was shooting those free throws at the end of the game, I almost felt like I was gonna throw up. It’s so hard to beat a team that’s as good as Cary-Grove twice. That’s an outstanding team over there.”

A half-court, desperation three-point attempt by Cary-Grove senior Megan Leisten would’ve sent the game into overtime, but it fell less than a foot short of the rim. Olivia Jakubicek finished with a game-high 19 points for the Trojans, who came closer than anyone has to handing Vernon Hills their first loss this season.

“This was one of those games you don’t usually see until late in the year, or the playoffs,” Cary-Grove coach Rod Saffert said. “Our 9-6 record certainly isn’t indicative of how good our team can be. And we showed that tonight. This was one heck of a game.”

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