In a break from her normal weekday morning routine, Meri Bennett-Swanson has been talking basketball, in which she's fluent.
Back-to-back 9 a.m. starts to open the Mundelein Holiday Classic haven't fazed the Vernon Hills senior and her teammates, who've looked wide-awake.
"For winter break, it's early," Bennett-Swanson said of the start times. "But it's like a regular school day, only I get to go play basketball, instead of going to French first period."
Vernon Hills had a Thursday morning test that proved as challenging as learning a second language. The Cougars aced it, leading from start to finish in a 44-33 win over Cary-Grove, which couldn't match its opponent's interior size and strength.
Vernon Hills improved to 16-0 (2-0 in the tournament), despite committing 26 turnovers, and will play at 5 p.m. today in the semifinals. Cary-Grove dropped to 8-5 and 1-1 in the tourney.
Trojans forward Olivia Jakubicek led all scorers with 19 points and grabbed 8 rebounds. The 5-foot-10 senior showed no fear taking the ball to the basket, where the 6-2 Bennett-Swanson and 6-foot Lauren Webb occupy space.
"We knew that they were going to be a good game and we knew that they hadn't lost yet," Jakubicek said of the Cougars. "We were excited for this game."
Bennett-Swanson led Vernon Hills with 14 points, 10 rebounds and 2 blocks. Webb had 11 points and 9 boards, while Sydney Smith contributed 5 points, 8 rebounds, 3 steals and 2 blocks. Alina Lehocky added 9 points, including a 3-pointer, coming off the bench.
"The difference was that (Vernon Hills) played together as a unit, and we just didn't at times," said C-G coach Rod Saffert, whose team, other than Jakubicek, didn't have a player score more than 4 points. "Obviously Olivia showed up to play, as she always does. We're not questioning the heart and desire of any of our girls, but it was obvious that we were not playing together."
"Great team," Bennett-Swanson said of C-G. "Olivia Jakubicek is definitely tough and No. 12 (Joslyn Nicholson), as well. It was really a fun game."
Nicholson's jumper -- her only field goal of the game -- had Cary-Grove within 24-16 midway through the third quarter. But Jakubicek picked up her third foul of quarter and fourth overall with three minutes left in the third, sending her to the bench.
With the Trojans' star out of the game, Vernon Hills attacked the basket. Bennett-Swanson put home her own miss, and Lehocky finished inside after a pass from Brie Bahlman. Lehocky's jumper, off a dish from Kasey Firnbach (4 points), capped a 6-0 run and had the Cougars up 30-18 heading into the fourth.
"(Jakubicek) picking up that fourth foul was definitely helpful," Vernon Hills coach Paul Brettner said. "She's just that good."
Jakubicek's kid sister, Abby Jakubicek, scored a couple of baskets early in the fourth to keep Cary-Grove within striking distance. But Bennett-Swanson's three-point play with 5:51 left padded the Cougars' lead to 35-22. Olivia Jakubicek then re-entered the game, but the 13-point deficit was too much for the Trojans.
Vernon Hills continued to pound the ball inside down the stretch, with Webb going 5 of 6 from the line and finishing a pass from Smith.
"It was very physical," Olivia Jakubicek said. "We knew we were going to get that because they have physical posts."
"I think we played pretty well," Brettner said. "They're a scary team with Jakubicek and Nicholson, and (Kylie) Smith can shoot 3s all day. With those three scorers, we really had to work our tails off to try to contain them."