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NORMAL -- As upsets go, there are few words to describe the one the Vernon Hills girls basketball team pulled off here Friday afternoon.
"Fantastic," said Cougars' coach Paul Brettner.
"A dream come true," smiled sophomore Sydney Smith.
"We know how to play basketball," stated senior Julie Pecht.
And the Cougars, who weren't even ranked in the Daily Herald Top 20 let alone in the final statewide rankings at the end of the regular season, showed the whole state just that with a stunning 49-45 upset of No. 1 Springfield in the Class 3A state semifinals at Redbird Arena.
The Cougars (26-7) will play No. 5 Montini (32-5) for the state championship at 2 p.m. Saturday. This is the first Vernon Hills girls sports team to participate in an IHSA Final Four tournament in the 12-year school history.
"I couldn't be prouder of this group," Brettner said. "They've worked so hard."
Maybe never harder than Friday, especially on defense. But their relentless ball-hawking held Springfield to its lowest point total of the season. The Senators (29-5) had averaged just over 73 points per game in their five postseason contests, winning by an average margin of 26 points.
"We were a little frightened when they scored 77 in the supersectional," Brettner said.
The Cougars, specifically Pecht and junior Brie Bahlmann, held Springfield all-state guard Zahna Medley to just 13 points, all in the first half. Medley, a Texas Christian recruit, was 5-for-25 shooting for the game and 1 of 13 from 3-point range. She was 0-for-12 in the second half. Springfield, which lost in the semifinals for the fourth straight year, made just 19 of 76 shots and was 2-for-25 from 3-point range. Springfield missed its first 10 shots of the game.
"My shots just weren't falling," said a subdued Medley, who called the loss the toughest of her career.
"She's an incredible player," Pecht said of Medley. "Me and Bri just tried to give her a couple steps back. We knew she'd throw stuff at us we've never seen before."
Brettner credited a team effort on Medley and all the Senators.
"Zahna Medley is a great player," he said. "She got some shots off but the 2-3 zone and the way we played it really held her in check. Slowing down one player is difficult but I had all the confidence in our team."
Vernon Hills, showing little in the way of nerves in its first trip to state, set the tone early. Sophomore Lauren Webb hit a 3-pointer 27 seconds after the tipoff, sparking the Cougars to a 7-0 lead. The Senators came back but VH held a 14-13 lead after one quarter and trailed just 26-25 at halftime.
But as Springfield and Medley struggled to find their shooting touch, the Cougars continued to gain confidence. A 3-pointer from Pecht gave VH a 40-36 lead with 1:30 left in the third quarter, but that also woke Springfield up a bit. The Senators went on an 8-0 run and took a 44-40 lead on 2 free throws from Ashton Williams with 5:37 left to play.
Webb, who Brettner had bring the ball up the floor most of the day, nailed a 3-pointer with 4:26 left to make it 44-43. Smith hit 2 free throws to give the Cougars the lead for good, 45-44, with 3:58 to play. Smith then took a nifty back door pass from junior Meri Bennett-Swanson for a layup and a 47-44 VH lead with 2:59 left. Single free throws from Webb and Pecht closed out the scoring as Springfield misfired on its final 8 shots of the game -- 5 of them 3-point attempts -- and didn't make a field goal in the final 6:04.
"I was just trying to get the ball up the floor so we could play the way we play on offense," said Webb, who finished with 13 points, 12 rebounds and 4 of the Cougars' 9 blocked shots.
The Cougars were able to overcome 27 turnovers by not allowing Springfield to turn those miscues into points.
"We've been talking about how their pressure can lead to layups but the turnovers we had today didn't happen in the backcourt and that allowed us to get back and play defense," Brettner said.
Vernon Hills was also efficient on offense, making 19 of 40 from the field for the day and 7 of 16 from 3-point range.
"They just plain shot better than we did," said Springfield coach Brad Scheffler. "It's a tough one to take. Of the four years we've been here this is the toughest loss we've had. We played hard, we just couldn't make a shot. Give credit to Vernon Hills. They made it tough on us."
And now the Cougars get an improbable shot at a state championship.
"These teams have all been here 2-3 years in a row and we've never been here before," said Pecht. "We got it done, and there's still more to get done."