Normal, Ill. – Third-place game. Second-chance free throws. First-year player. Zero margin for error.
Montini freshman Lea Kerstein, who missed two free throws with eight seconds left, found herself at the free-throw line again with 4.8 seconds remaining with the Broncos nursing a 40-38 lead the third-place game of the IHSA Class 3A state tournament Saturday at Redbird Arena on the campus of Illinois State University.
“Not as much as I thought I’d be,” she said.
Kerstein, who scored seven points including a three-pointer as part of a decisive 10-0 run in the third quarter that wiped out a 19-16 halftime deficit, redeemed herself with a pair of free throws with 4.8 seconds remaining to lead Montini (35-2) to a 42-38 victory over Morton (Ill.).
The win didn’t erase the disappointment of Friday’s semifinal overtime loss to Vernon Hills, but it did ease the sting a little.
“We talked about this last night,” Montini coach Jason Nichols said. “There’s a lot of teams that wish they were in our position. Sometimes I fail to realize that and relay that message to the kids. I tried to do that today.
“I told the kids there are a lot of girls who would love to be playing here two days,” he added. “We’re disappointed, but the sun came up today, we’re still breathing, life goes go on and just battle. We used this as a life lesson.”
The lesson came gift-wrapped in victory thanks to Kerstein and fellow freshman Paulina Castro, who combined to make four three-pointers in the second half after Montini went 0-for-13 in the first half.
“Most of time our shooters were being denied,” Kerstein said. “It was really hard getting open and we just had to move more. We weren’t moving off screens. It was hard for the whole team to get open.”
“Of course, we wanted first place and try to make history,” Kerstein said. “Freshman year, for us it was really nice coming down here. It was a great experience. Not a lot of schools get to come down here. We’re really thankful to have made it down this far.”
Kelly Karlis led Montini with 11 points, Sara Ross added eight and Castro had nine points, all from three-point range.
Nichols second-guessed himself for not utilizing Castro in the semifinal against Vernon Hills. The freshman played just 30 seconds.
“Last night I was sitting in the hotel really disappointed,” he said. “Kelsey (Bogdan) wasn’t looking to shoot. Sara (Ross) wasn’t looking to shoot. Maybe I should have gone to her, and that’s why I felt kind of bad. Maybe I did a poor job of recognizing and trying some options we might have had.
“They (Castro and Kerstein) are good, but they’re still freshman,” he added. “They’re not Kateri (Stone), they’re not Kelly (Karlis), they’re not Maylana (Johnson). They’re good, but they should emulate Kateri, they should emulate Kelly, they should emulate Malayna and those girls.”
Six-foot-2 Illinois recruit Sarah Livingston led Morton (30-6) with 16 points and 12 rebounds and Abbie Cox added nine points.
“Our kids went toe-to-toe with a very good team today,” Morton coach Bob Becker said. “We saw more of the team today that I envisioned coming in. We gave ourselves a chance. We were down eight points and battled down to two. We never gave up. It was just a couple of spurts by Montini.”