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Jason Nichols saw that extra spark in his Montini kids, and smiled.
This one, this was a little personal.
Facing ex-teammate Nikia Edom, who transferred after three years at Montini, the No. 2-ranked Broncos built a 14-point second-half lead, nearly lost it all, but held on to beat previously undefeated Plainfield East 58-51 in Friday's first semifinal of the the Montini Christmas Tournament in front of a large, raucous crowd in Lombard.
Montini (17-1) moves on to meet No. 1 Rolling Meadows (16-0), a 61-55 winner over Marian Catholic, in tonight's 8:15 p.m. championship game. It won't get more emotional than this one.
"Our kids wanted that game really, really bad," Nichols said. "I could see it before the game, I could see the intensity in their eyes and I just heard them talking about it in the locker room. It made me kind of smile. Really proud of the girls."
In a heated contest where foul trouble loomed large on both sides, Montini appeared on the verge of a blowout midway through the third quarter.
A 20-2 run turned an 18-14 deficit into a 34-20 lead. Kateri Stone's third 3-pointer ignited the spurt capped off by a Malayna Johnson score. The margin was still at 14 after Sara Ross' driving layup with 2:43 left in the third quarter.
Just as Plainfield East (14-1) was hurt by the foul trouble of Edom, star sophomore Faith Suggs and physical post Gabrielle Williams, Montini got a double dose of it when Stone and Ross went to the bench with four fouls, up 44-35, and the Broncos went scoreless for 4:43.
Plainfield East pulled within 44-42 on a deep 3-pointer by Suggs seconds into the fourth quarter, but after Williams missed two free throws for the tie Montini freshman Paulina Castro, just off the bench, drilled a corner 3.
"She has no conscience," Nichols said of Castro. "When she drives into Lombard with her parents she gets out of the car shooting."
Montini also got a boost with a pair of second-half 3s from freshman Lea Kerstein, Kerstein's second 3 making it 52-45 with 4:31 left. Plainfield East had its share of chances late, but never drew closer than 3.
"We were in major, major foul trouble," Nichols said, "and some of our freshmen stepped up. I thought we were pretty much in control, almost about to blow them out, but then we got in foul trouble. But that's part of the game. It affected them, but our kids weathered the storm."
Montini was, after all, familiar with holding on to late leads. The Broncos nearly blew an 11-point fourth-quarter lead at home against Geneva three weeks ago. Finally Friday, Stone's 4 free throws in the closing seconds secured the win.
"We didn't have a lot of momentum late, because people kept getting fouls," said Stone, who scored a game-high 17 points. "But we buckled down. We've been through this situation before."
Edom, a starter on last year's state title team, scored 10 points, 7 in the third quarter to spark the Bengals comeback. Williams, also big in the rally, added 11 and 12 rebounds and Suggs 10. Plainfield East similarly rallied from a double-digit lead Thursday to beat Romeoville at the buzzer. Bengals coach Missy Mitidiero appreciated her team's fight, acknowledging an uphill climb they never quite scaled.
"Never quite got over the hump," Mitidiero said. "They're a tough team once you give them that lead. I have the utmost respect for our kids the way they came back. This is a hard place to come back in, but at the same time our kids fought."
"You saw the (big) crowd — it was an emotional game on both sides," Stone said. "I respect (Edom) and I respect Faith — there's some very good players on that team. It was a great win."
Johnson had 12 points, 11 rebounds and 5 blocks and Ross and Kelly Karlis 9 apiece for Montini.
"Whatever happens tomorrow, as a coach, we got something out of this tournament," Nichols said.
Follow Josh on Twitter @jwelge96