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Hardened by its only loss, Montini earned its biggest win of the year.
Plodding along offensively for two-plus quarters -- much like against Peoria Richwoods one week prior -- the No. 2 Broncos roared back from 10 down in the third quarter to knock off previously unbeaten No. 1 Rolling Meadows 52-43 in Saturday's championship game of the Montini Christmas Tournament in front of a near-capacity crowd in Lombard.
"The Richwoods loss definitely woke us up," said Montini junior Kelly Karlis, who scored a team-high 16 points. "This is a big win for us. It shows that we can win against the good teams."
Montini's championship was its third in the four-year history of the tournament -- and its most impressive, with the field expanded to 16 teams and featuring unbeatens Rolling Meadows, Plainfield East and Marian Catholic.
Down 31-21 with 4:02 left in the third quarter after Jenny Vliet hit a 3-pointer for Rolling Meadows (16-1), Montini (18-1) hit the Mustangs with a 21-2 run, taking a 42-33 lead on a pair of Karlis free throws with 2:55 to play.
"We showed a lot of guts," Montini coach Jason Nichols said. "The reason we won this game is because we lost to Richwoods, simple as that. If we would not have lost to Richwoods, found a way to sneak out of Sterling with a win against Fremd, we would not have won this tournament."
Montini missed 12 3-point shots in a row at one point, but Kateri Stone ended the drought in a big way with a triple for a 34-33 lead with 6:16 left. It was Montini's first lead since 10-8 midway through the first quarter, after Stone's other 3.
"I've been in this position countless times before, at state last year started 0 for 12, but I know I still have the confidence of my coach and my teammates," said Stone, who scored 11 points. "That's what really helps. Just have to keep shooting."
Rolling Meadows never really got its high-octane attack going and the pace to its liking -- even with the lead.
Alexis Glasgow jump-started the Mustangs with 11 of her 16 points in the first quarter, her third 3 capping an 11-0 run to make it 19-10 a minute into the second quarter. Perhaps bothered by Montini's length, the Mustangs -- averaging 72 points per game coming in -- were held to a season low. Rolling Meadows also shot 7 of 16 from the free-throw line, 5 of 10 in the first half despite taking a 23-19 lead into the break.
"I think our zone offense definitely stagnated in the second half, and we didn't push the ball as much as we wanted to," Mustangs coach Ryan Kirkorsky said. "Credit to Montini. With their size and length, they were able to slow us down and dictate a little slower of a pace."
"Both teams were tired after the grind of four days," Nichols said, "but it was a great effort. How about us holding them to 43? And we still can get better."
Mustangs speedy 5-foot-6 junior point guard Jackie Kemph, named the tournament MVP, was held to 9 points after scoring 88 the three previous games.
"We were trying to wall her off with two girls, and keep her from penetrating," Nichols said. "Nine points -- that's awesome. And she was very deserving of that MVP. C'mon, she was awesome. Between Karlis, Lea (Kerstein), (Kelsey) Bogdan, they did a great job walling her off and then we had a 6-4 kid waiting for her underneath."
That kid, Malayna Johnson, had 7 points, 10 rebounds and 7 blocks for Montini. Sami Kay scored 9 points and Vliet had 6 points and 14 rebounds -- with 4 of Rolling Meadows' 17 offensive rebounds. Beating Marian Catholic, and nearly handing Montini a loss on its home floor, should affirm the Mustangs a legit contender in Class 4A.
"We battled in this tournament against some of the best teams in the state," Kirkorsky said. "Coming out of here 3-1, our kids are disappointed, but I think this will help us down the road."
• Follow Josh on Twitter @jwelge96