Vernon Hills ousts Burlington Central

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If the inexperience factor finally caught up with Burlington Central’s young basketball team in Monday’s Class 3AHoffman EstatesSupersectional, it took a very experienced and talented Vernon Hills team to deny the Rockets.

Vernon Hills qualified for the final four of Class 3A for the second straight year and earned a shot at Montini in Friday’s state semifinals with a 39-31 victory Monday over Burlington Central. Montini beat Vernon Hills in last year’s state title game.

“Round 2: We can get some redemption,” declared elated Vernon Hills point guard Lauren Webb.

It was Webb who came to her team’s rescue after Central rallied and seemed poised for the upset following senior guard Camille Delacruz’s steal and layup with 3:45 left to knot the score at 31. Webb simply came up the court and slashed into the lane for a lay-in that broke the tie, and Central didn’t score again as Vernon Hills (30-2) pulled away with six free throws in the final 1:12.

“It’s a veteran team and it’s a lot of free throws we’ve shot,” said Vernon Hills center Meri Bennett-Swanson. “We shoot so many free throws in practice. We practice for these moments.

“As soon as the time was running out, and we got up two, we were comfortable because we’ve done this so often.”

Central had scratched away at what had been a 10-point deficit in the first half and after falling behind on Webb’s drive to the hoop, the Rockets had a shot blocked, had Shelby Holt’s shot at the go-ahead three-pointer miss, and then committed a turnover. Webb made two free throws for a 35-31 lead with 1:12 left en route to a 12-point night, and Central’s chances all but vanished with Vernon Hills’ Brie Bahlmann came up with a steal that led to two Sydney Smith free throws.

“The main thing was we had some shaky possessions,” Central coach Mark Smith said of his team’s finish. “I think that really hurt us.

“I think also we were scrambling a little bit and I thought we let their kids go to the basket — really atypical of what we’ve done all season. I thought we got a little overaggressive when we tied it up. We had girls moving all over the place and we let them go all the way to the hole.”

For much of the game Vernon Hills’ huge height advantage and ability to get out and defend the three-pointer kept Central at arm’s length. The Rockets got outrebounded by a 41-25 count on the night and Swanson, who is 6-foot-2, blocked three shots while scoring eight first-half points on a 12-point night.

However, Central refused to be blown off the court, and hung close.

“We were trying to get the ball more inside,” Vernon Hills coach Paul Brettner said. “Credit them. We were trying, but they did a great job not letting us do it after the first buckets by Meri.”

Central (27-5) made its move in the fourth quarter when it finally started getting to the basket on a night when it could hit only 3-of-23 from beyond the three-point arc. Alison Colby scored four of her nine points in the fourth quarter and Sam Pryor’s three-pointer pulled Central within two and set up the game-tying steal and layup by Delacruz, who also had nine points. But Vernon Hills’ defense and ability to get to the bucket denied a Rockets team that had nine underclassmen.

“We definitely worked hard enough to get here,” said Delacruz about Central. “We proved a lot of people wrong.”

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