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Members of the Vernon Hills girls basketball team celebrate with their trophies (facing from left) Sydney Smith, Meri Benett Swanson, Lauren Webb, Brie Bahlmann, Katherine Koczwara and Haley Lieberman after their victory in the North Suburban Conference C
Vernon Hills made North Suburban Conference girls basketball history on Wednesday.
Its 51-50 win over host Zion-Benton marked the first time the Prairie Division champ beat the Lake Division champ in the 13-year history of the North Suburban Conference Championship Game.
But more important, the result showed that the 25-2 Cougars are ready, willing and able to make another run at the Class 3A state championship one year after a second-place finish to Montini.
Montini will be a roadblock again this year (possibly in the state semifinals), but the Cougars now appear ready to challenge the three-time defending state champs, something they weren’t ready to do a year ago.
The reason to believe was Wednesday’s gut-check win over Zion-Benton (17-7), in which the Cougars rallied from a miserable first half (25-8 deficit at one point) to take a 47-46 lead in the late going.
In the final 2 minutes, Vernon Hills missed 7-of-9 free throws, but a combination of offensive boards by the Cougars and Zion turnovers kept the Cougars ahead at 51-47 with 47 seconds left. Zion’s Sam Rodriguez hit a three-pointer with 15 seconds left to make it 51-50, and Vernon Hills threw the ball out of bounds with 4.2 seconds left. But Zion had to go the length of the floor and Rodriguez was missed from long range.
“We lost our composure a little bit,” said Vernon Hills coach Paul Brettner. “But we got it back. We hung in there and got some quick baskets and never let them get separation.”
Vernon Hills led 25-11 at halftime, as Zion was 5-of-24 from the field and committed nine turnovers.
But a 12-0 run got the Bees within 37-33 after three quarters and a 9-0 run gave them a 42-39 lead midway through the fourth.
That’s when Vernon Hills showed the kind of staying power that will serve it well in the playoffs.
“I feel absolutely wonderful,” said Webb (game-high 20 points). “We set goals at the beginning of the season and this was definitely one we wanted to accomplish. Sydney and I had bad free-throw days. That’s going to happen, but what you can always control is your defense.
“It definitely shows our perseverance. Nobody put their head down when Zion was making its comeback and everybody contributed to the win.”
Senior center Meri Bennett-Swanson had 15 points in the win. “It’s awesome, especially after not winning last year. It makes this one even more special. I’m really proud of my teammates.”
For Zion, Kaitlyn Stabenow led with 18 points. “They came out ready and we came out nervous,” she said. “We finally started playing our game in the second half. Coach [Tanya] Johnson got to us about boxing out. In the second half, we boxed out and that let us get back into the game.
“The reason we lost is because we didn’t box out on their free-throw opportunities and kept giving them extra shots.”
Syerra Cunningham added 14 points and grabbed 11 rebounds for Zion.
“There’s a lot of pride in the Prairie Division,” said Brettner. “We don’t win a lot of crossovers. It’s really good to bring it (the championship) to the Prairie side for once.”