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Lake Villa Thursday 02.14.13. Vernon Hills' Brie Bahlmann (left) looks to shoot over Lakes' Dayna Olson (right) during their regional game on Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013, at Lakes Community High School in Lake Villa. | Buzz Orr~Sun-Times Media
The mark of a good basketball team is often how well it shoots free throws.
As far as the Vernon Hills girls go, it seems the bigger the game, the more focused they tend to become at the charity stripe.
Perhaps it’s the fact that most of the players have been in pressure-packed situations before, thanks to the team’s run to the Class 3A title game a year ago. Or perhaps it’s just the result of a lot of hard work.
Whatever the case, earlier this season, it became quite clear this bunch had a special talent for sinking foul shots.
In December, Vernon Hills came into a game against Cary-Grove unbeaten and with a 15-game winning streak. In that contest, the Cougars attempted 11 free throws — all in the fourth quarter — and finished 8-for-11 en route to a 44-33 win.
“We do this thing in practice called ‘Spartan’ free throws, where everybody on the team gets a partner and we get five minutes on the clock,” senior guard Brie Bahlmann said. “To get one point, we have to have five makes in a row. It puts pressure on you to help you focus more.”
Two days after picking up their 16th win of the season, the Cougars were again pitted against Cary-Grove in a rematch that also happened to be the championship game of the Mundelein Holiday Classic. That night, Vernon Hills finished a perfect 20-for-20 from the line to remain unbeaten.
Even more noteworthy was the fact that the Cougars were 17-of-17 in the fourth quarter, when the margin was never more than seven points. Bahlmann went 8-for-8 on the night, while junior teammate Lauren Webb sank all six of her fourth-quarter foul shots.
“We have a lot of drills in practice that help us with our free throws,” Webb said. “Sometimes, if we don’t make our goal, we have to do down-and-backs (a running drill). And no one wants to do those, but it does help you focus.”
“That’s hardly ever a consequence, though,” Vernon Hills coach Paul Brettner noted. “There’s usually not a lot of penalty involved in most of our drills.”
Not impressed yet?
In a January game against Benet, the Cougars rallied from a 14-point deficit. After missing their first two foul shots of the game, they ripped off 23 consecutive makes for a comeback victory.
Since that game, they’ve won six in a row entering Tuesday’s Vernon Hills Sectional semifinal against Grayslake Central.
That includes Feb. 12, when they made 18 of 23 foul shots in a 30-point win over St. Edward in the Class 3A Lakes Regional semifinal. Two days later Vernon Hills finished 13-of-14 from the foul line to beat Lakes 64-35 and win its second consecutive regional title.
“We’ve just gotten really good at dealing with the pressure,” Webb said. “Even when we don’t meet our goals in practice, coach (Brettner) always gives us a chance to redeem ourselves, and (making) free throws is just one option he gives us.”
There are exceptions to the rule, however.
In the North Suburban Conference title game against Zion-Benton, the Cougars shot just 11-for-23 from the line after making five of their first six. They still managed to squeak away with a one-point win, though.
“That was a fluke,” Vernon Hills junior Sydney Smith said with a smile. ~.