NORMAL – Montini’s Kateri Stone waited all season for this moment. It wasn’t to lead the Broncos to their fourth state title in five years. It was to see coach Jason Nichols smile.
“Yes, oh my gosh,” Stone said. “Five months it took for the smile, but finally got one.”
Nichols was smiling after the Broncos made 11 three-pointers — one shy of the school record – and held Joliet Catholic’s high-scoring duo of Jasmine Lumpkin and Nicole Ekhomu to a combined 26 points in a 57-44 victory in the Class 3A state championship game Saturday at Redbird Arena.
The championship game was a far cry from Friday’s semifinal when Montini was a frigid 3-of-19 from distance.
“We kind of knew after not hitting shots yesterday they were definitely going in today,” Kelly Karlis said. “Yesterday was over and done with. It was in the past. We came out really focused and we really wanted this one more than anything. I think that’s why we hit our shots today.”
But it wasn’t all shooting. Montini’s defense held Joliet Catholic to 16-of-44 from the field and 4-of-15 from beyond the arc.
“I think we’re really good at taking away teams’ best players, and when we defend well, we play offense really well,” Nichols said. “You hear that a lot, but it’s so true of us, and when we’re terribly offensively, we end up being terrible defensively in most cases.”
Joliet Catholic (28-3) didn’t go down easy. The Angels scored the final five points of the first quarter to lead 13-12 heading into the second, but Montini forged a 28-23 halftime lead at the buzzer on Lea Kerstein’s one-handed shot from beyond the arc.
The Broncos (34-2) scored the first six points of the second half to extend the lead to 34-23, but Joliet Catholic answered with a 9-0 run to pull within 34-32 with 2:16 remaining in the third quarter. Nicole Ekhomu scored five of her team-high 14 points during the run.
“We had a chance at that point,” Joliet Catholic coach Ed Schodrof said. “We changed the tempo, we got the momentum finally going our way. They hit some really huge shots. They hit I think something like 12 threes. You make 12 threes, you’re going to win a lot of basketball games,”
Schodrof was off by one three-pointer, but it didn’t matter. Joliet Catholic never got closer. Freshman Kaylee Bambule and Karlis hit back-to-back three-pointers, and after Lumpkin’s jumper early in the fourth quarter got the Angels within 40-34, Karlis hit another three-pointer, her fourth in seven tries.
Montini’s defense and free-throw shooting did the rest.
“Their defense deserves a lot of credit,” Schodrof said. “They did a great job shutting down the paint area and making us work for our shots. Their overall length is impressive. There was a time when there was all six-footers out there. They get their hands up and play that very disciplined percentage defense.”
Karlis led Montini with 16 points, Kerstein added 13 points on 3-of-4 shooting from beyond the arc and Stone added 12 points on 3-of-6 from behind the arc.
Lumpkin added 12 points and 10 rebounds for Joliet Catholic, but was limited to just seven field-goal attempts by Montini’s constant double-teaming.
“Last year was the hardest thing that any of us had to go through,” Stone said. “I think it was also a good thing because we learned a lot from it. Coming into this year, we didn’t take anything for granted. This was really surreal. It’s awesome.”
And for Montini, something to smile about.