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Article updated: 2/23/2012 11:59 PM
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Believe it: Wheeling wins again
 

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Believe it: Wheeling wins again
  • Wheeling's Deanna Kuzmanic celebrates the Wildcats' victory over Zion-Benton with the rest of her teammates in the Class 4A sectional final at Palatine High School on Thursday.

    Purchase Photo | Wheeling's Deanna Kuzmanic celebrates the Wildcats' victory over Zion-Benton with the rest of her teammates in the Class 4A sectional final at Palatine High School on Thursday. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  •  Wheeling celebrates its victory over Zion-Benton in the Class 4A sectional final at Palatine High School on Thursday.

    Purchase Photo | Wheeling celebrates its victory over Zion-Benton in the Class 4A sectional final at Palatine High School on Thursday. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  •  Wheeling celebrates its victory over Zion-Benton in the Class 4A girls basketball sectional finals at Palatine High School on Thursday.

    Purchase Photo | Wheeling celebrates its victory over Zion-Benton in the Class 4A girls basketball sectional finals at Palatine High School on Thursday. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  •  Zion-Benton's Aaliyah Smith heads to the basket with Wheeling's Brie Majkowski and Kellie Kuzmanic blocking her path in sectional final play at Palatine High School on Thursday.

    Purchase Photo | Zion-Benton's Aaliyah Smith heads to the basket with Wheeling's Brie Majkowski and Kellie Kuzmanic blocking her path in sectional final play at Palatine High School on Thursday. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

 

The Wheeling fans held signs in the stands on Thursday night that read "We Believe."

Everyone is believing in the Wildcats now.

Story Continues Below

Wheeling's improbable run as the No. 14 seed in an 19-team regional reached an unprecedented milestone on Thursday night in the Palatine Class 4A sectional championship.

The Wildcats (15-18) became the first team in the history of the IHSA girls basketball state tourney to reach the Elite Eight with a losing record.

Without a Division I player on the floor, and with a girl who wasn't even in high school a year ago scoring a game-high 20 points, Wheeling stunned No. 8 Zion-Benton 50-45.

The amazing Wildcats, who started the season at 1-14 and lost their final regular-season game 36-23 at Palatine, will face Loyola in the Stevenson supersectional at 7:30 p.m. Monday.

"Oh my God," said senior Leah Malsom (7 points), also a top flight swimmer. "This is absolutely incredible. It's insane we are so close to state. I was supposed to start water polo on Monday but I don't care."

This is all new to Deanna Kuzmanic, a freshman. But she plays like she has been around for four years, and everyone saw that Thursday as she seemed to answer every big punch the Zee Bees threw with a game-high 20 points and 8-of-10 free throw shooting.

And once again, her teammates helped provide the stifling defense, especially in the final minutes.

"Kudos to the team of destiny," said Zion-Benton hall of fame coach Tanya Johnson. "It was their night."

It was a night when Johnson's team (22-9) had to play more than half the game without Illinois-State bound standout Octavia Crump, who picked up two fouls in the first four minutes and her fourth with 2:19 left in the third quarter. She fouled out with 1:52 left and her team down 46-45.

"She's a great player," said Kellie Kuzmanic, a senior and sister of Deanna. "She drives, she pulls up and passes or shoots. We had a lot of respect for her. When she was out of the game we just had a little more confidence that we could take this."

Even without Crump, the Zee-Bees proved formidable all night and picking up the slack was sophomore foreword Samantha Rodriguez with 20 points.

"No. 21 (Rodriguez) did a fabulous job," said Wheeling coach Julissa Hernandez. "She dropped 20 on us. For a player to do that, she definitely did what she wanted against our defense.

"Octavia Crump is an excellent player. One of our goals was to play pressure defense and hope to get her in foul trouble."

Back-to-back 3-pointers by junior Jessi Zuba gave the Wildcats their first lead at 8-7 after trailing 7-2.

"That was great," Hernandez said. "We didn't come out making the shots we usually get from some of our girls. So when Jessi was open, she had the green light and she made them."

Neither team led by more than 3 points the rest of the half until Zion got up 21-15 on a layup by Aaliyah Smith with 37 seconds left.

Malsom hit an 8-footer over two defenders to cut the deficit 21-17 at the break.

Zion led by as many as 5 points midway through the third quarter when junior Kaitlyn Stabenow tossed in a 3-pointer.

The Zee Bees led 36-33 after three quarters and 45-42 with 3:40 left.

But the Wheeling defense did not allow another point and the freshman Kuzmanic took the spotlight.

Deanna went coast-to-coast for a driving layup to make it 45-44. Two free throws by Deanna with 2:21 left put the Cats ahead for good at 46-45.

Deanna added two more with 33 seconds left for a 48-45 lead.

"I knew we needed to score, but my teammates were out there making things happen," Deanna said. "I think a lot of teams have underestimated us, but we know our record doesn't mean anything."

Kellie finished the game-closing Kuzmanic 8-0 run with 2 free throws with 9.3 seconds left moments after suffering a black eye. She was icing moments after icing Z-B for the biggest win of her four-year varsity career.

"This is crazy," said Kellie, who pulled down some crucial rebounds and finished with 14 points. "What an exciting time. We are pushing hard for everything."

Johnson was proud of her team's push through the tourney, which earlier saw wins over No. 1 seed Fremd and No. 9 Hersey from the Mid-Suburban League.

"I'm really proud of Samantha trying carry us on her back," Johnson said. "We try to play a quick up-tempo game and with Octavia and Shania Thompson on the bench a lot (with foul trouble), that really affected the way we do things.

"So many things go through Octavia. So this was a learning curve for us. I'm so proud of them. Not many people other than Zion players expected us to be playing in this game."

And the same, of course, can be said for the Wildcats.

"These girls have all the heart in the world," said Hernandez, who now has a sectional crown as a coach and a player (with Lake Park in 2003). "Right now, it's hard to tell them no that they can't keep winning."

No, because they and their fans are definitely believers.

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