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Brie Bahlmann, "Breezy" to her family and high school basketball coach, knew this would not be a breeze.
Never mind that in Tuesday night's rematch of last season's Class 3A St. Viator sectional final thriller, Vernon Hills took the court with three returning starters compared to Grayslake Central's one.
When these teams last met, Vernon Hills delivered the Rams a crushing loss on Julie Pecht's buzzer-beating putback.
"I think that was part of the reason why they wanted to get the win," Bahlmann said.
Truthfully, Grayslake Central just wanted to compete hard and send a message.
The Rams did, despite Vernon Hills pulling out a 44-37 win in a nonconference game that was close throughout.
Vernon Hills improved to 6-0, while Grayslake Central fell to 3-3.
"I told the girls I never like losing, but I thought we made a statement tonight that we're still a solid team,"Grayslake Central coach Steve Ikenn said. "We got some work to do, but I really liked what we showed in terms of we're not a team that's going to back down."
At game's end, Vernon Hills could breathe easy thanks to "Breezy." The 5-foot-8 Bahlmann, a third-year varsity player who's starting for the first time, had 10 points, 9 rebounds and 6 steals.
Sydney Smith scored a game-high 16 points, including 7 in the fourth quarter, for Vernon Hills.
"She can do a lot of things," Cougars coach Paul Brettner said of Bahlmann. "Since sophomore year she's taken baby steps. She's looking a lot tougher than previous years. Good kid, works hard. She can still defend, but it's nice to see her do some other things offensively a little more and grow that way."
Bahlmann's steal and a pullup jumper with 2:48 left in the third had Vernon Hills up 29-27 entering the final quarter. She had a baseline drive and bucket and also sank a free throw in the fourth, which saw Vernon Hills stretch its lead to eight with less than a minute left.
"I feel like everybody has helped me to improve," Bahlmann said. "Last year, even though I didn't start, I feel like everybody on the team really pushed me to get those boards and learn how to get those boards. And in practice it helps that (returning starters) Lauren (Webb), Syd (Smith) and Meri (Bennett-Swanson) really push me to get bigger on the post, even though I'm shorter than most of the posts out there."
Vernon Hills shot only 11 of 47 (23 percent) through three quarters and led just 29-27.
"We didn't shoot necessarily well, and that's going to happen," Brettner said. "I knew coming in that even though (Grayslake Central) lost a fair amount (to graduation), Coach Ikenn would have them playing very good defense, and they did. They were intense."
Alina Lehocky provided a lift coming off the bench for Vernon Hills. The senior forward, who missed the Cougars' first four games while recovering from a partially torn tendon in her foot suffered during cross country, started the second half and made an immediate impact. She first fed Smith for a layup and then sank a left-wing 3-pointer to give Vernon Hills its first lead, at 24-23, since the opening quarter.
Lehocky finished with 7 points, 9 rebounds and 2 steals.
"It looks like she's fully back," Brettner said. "That gives us a nice extra player, (whether) it's starting, coming off the bench or whatever role she has. She's solid. She's where she's supposed to be, she doesn't make mistakes, and she gets to places not many other players can."
Grayslake Central played without starting point guard Carson Sparkman, who missed her second straight game after bumping her head in the Rams' double-overtime win over Westinghouse at Buffalo Grove last Friday. The Rams are hoping she's cleared today to resume playing.
"I thought we played a great game tonight, especially considering we didn't have our starting point guard out there," Ikenn said. "To me, the difference in the game was free throws."
Grayslake Central went to the foul line only twice, while Vernon Hills shot 19 free throws, making 10. When Vernon Hills' players were fouled, it was usually on penetration and second-shot opportunities.
"We worked on our defense and we made sure they didn't get the shots they wanted," Ikenn said.
Maddy Miller scored 11 points for Grayslake Central. Morgan Dahlstrom had 10 points and 8 rebounds, while also helping limit Bennett-Swanson to just 2 points. Sophomore Rachel Effa played well coming off the bench, finishing with a season-high 10 points, 5 rebounds and 4 steals.
"Offensively, we just got to get a little bit more consistent handling the ball and making those passes," Ikenn said after his Rams committed 20 turnovers. "We'll get that."