Burlington Centrail beats pressure to make state finals

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Standing up to pressure is what the state high school tournament is all about, so it’s little wonder the Burlington Central girls basketball team is headed for the first time to state at Normal Thursday to play in Friday’s Class 3A state semifinals against Montini.

While defense has been Central’s calling card with an average of 33.6 points allowed per postseason game, it’s also been the Rockets’ ability to play with poise and discipline at the games’ most crucial junctures that got them to and past Carmel in Monday’s supersectional.

“We do a lot of pressure work in practice,” sophomore guard Shelby Holt said. “It’s like, up in your face. It’s a lot of one-on-one things so that when it comes to this (championship) situation you know what to do.”

Coach Mark Smith calls the drills nothing different than what many teams use, except that these drills involve a whole team of players who refuse to lose.

“You put them in situations where it’s mostly competitive, a winner and a loser,” he said. “They don’t like to lose, whether it means extra running for the loser or whatever. We’re always competing.”

In games, the Rockets face pressure by avoiding the silly, rushed shot or getting into a risky situation with the ball. They’ve run their offense and get stronger defensively as games progress.

They outscored Carmel the last three quarters 34-17, Rockford Lutheran 14-7 in the fourth quarter, Sycamore 24-8 in the second half and St. Edward 24-12 in the second half.

Montini coach Jason Nichols has seen this quality to stay disciplined under fire in his perennial state contender team before, and sees it in the Rockets.

“Some teams, you don’t know, you might get in a bigger arena and in front of a crowd and they handle the situation poorly, but they (Central) have a bunch of girls who might not be stars but they have a lot of determination and don’t quit when it gets tough,” he said. “They’re going to be energized, excited and play hard as long as there’s gas in their bus and can get to the arena.”

Considering Holt, Kayla Ross, Samantha Cruz, Rebecca Gerke and Samantha Pryor are sophomores, and Alison Colby and Aly DeTamble are juniors, the composure for such a young age is all the more startling.

“It certainly helped having last year’s experience,” Smith said of the 2012-13 supersectional run. “You can’t replicate pressure situations — even with all the drills in practice — like you can when you get out and play in games.

“Our games at the Dundee-Crown game, the Fremd game, last year’s tournament, those are pressure situations you hope to build on and hope to fall back on and use when you get in those situations in the future.”

Friday’s 12:15 p.m. semifinal game will be the first of three against Montini in three years. The Rockets have signed on for a home-and-home series against the perennial powers in 2014-15 and 2015-16 — more difficult, competitive situations to help build a team that has been clutch throughout the postseason.

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