Before she and her Vernon Hills basketball teammates could carry the championship plaque out of Mundelein's gym Saturday night, Sydney Smith had some other lifting to do.
So midway through the third quarter, after Vernon Hills guard Haley Lieberman collided hard with a Cary-Grove player on a drive to the basket, Smith did what any good, selfless, caring -- and physically strong -- teammate would do.
A shaken-up Lieberman lay facedown on the court, as if hugging it.
"When 'Liebs' goes down, she always gets back up," Smith said of her petite teammate. "So when she hit the floor and she didn't move, we were all like, 'Oh, my God.' She's an amazing defender and she does so much for our team. I was like, 'I can't just let 'Liebs' sit there. I went over just to check on her. She was crying, and I felt so bad. I'm like, 'No one's over here so I'm just going to pick her up and take her to the bench myself.' "
Talk about a player providing a lift.
Smith scooped up Lieberman and carried her to the bench, like a mother cradling her child.
Maybe it was fitting, after all, that it was Smith's 2 free throws with 2.2 seconds left that allowed Vernon Hills to finally put away pesky Cary-Grove. Brie Bahlmann scored a career-high 15 points, Smith added 14, and the Cougars went an amazing 20 of 20 from the foul line in a 50-47 win, its second over Cary-Grove in three days at Mundelein.
"I knew they'd come back after two days ago," coach Paul Brettner, whose Cougars won all four of their games at Mundelein to improve to 18-0, said of the Trojans. "Coach Saffert (Rod Saffert), he's so good. He had plenty of new wrinkles. He took a lot of what we did the first time away. He did a really nice job."
As she did in Thursday's game, Cary-Grove forward Olivia Jakubicek scored a game-high 19 points against Vernon Hills, but this time she got help. Joslyn Nicholson scored 6 of her 12 points in the third quarter in helping the Trojans build their largest lead at 27-20.
But Bahlman's three-point play early in the fourth capped a 10-0 run, and the rest of the game would be tight, although Cary-Grove would never regain the lead.
The relentless Jakubicek scored 7 points in the fourth.
"Olivia is an outstanding player," Smith said. "She's the nicest girl on the face of the earth. It's so hard to play against her because she's so nice. But out there (on the court), she's going to kick your butt every single chance that she has, and she's not going to let up. She did not let up. They did not let up that game."
Vernon Hills built a pair of six-point leads down the stretch, but Cary-Grove (9-6, 2-2 tournament) kept coming back. Even down 46-41 with 28 seconds left and with Nicholson having just fouled out, the Trojans battled. Jakubicek had a three-point play and Kyle Smith sank a tough 3 with six seconds left to make it a one-point game.
"We don't give up," Nicholson said. "That's very, very important to us. No matter what the score is, we can't ever hang our heads. Whether there's 40 seconds left or 11 seconds left, we need to keep playing until the end."
Bahlman was terrific in the fourth for Vernon Hills, going 9 of 9 from the stripe. Down the stretch, she secured an offensive rebound and later came up with a steal, drawing shooting fouls both times.
"That's what we count on her to do," Brettner said of his senior guard. "She's everywhere. She can take it to the hoop, box out, rebound, guard (the opponent's) best player."
Bahlman also had 5 rebounds and 3 steals.
"Brie," Smith said, "was an animal."
"Haley Lieberman, Mady (Roberts) and all the guards on the team help me out with that," Bahlmann said of her nonstop tenacity. "In practice we have this drill where we go back and forth, half court all the way down, and try to get in each other's face so we can stop the ball. Without their help, I don't think I would be able to keep up the stamina to be able to do that to (No.) 42 (Jakubicek) and (No.) 12 (Nicholson)."
Lauren Webb added 10 points for Vernon Hills, going 6 of 6 from the line in the fourth. The Cougars were perfect on 17 foul-shot tries in the final quarter.
They needed them all to put away their fearless opponent.
"It's one of those games where it's like, 'That's how you should be playing at the end of the season,' " Saffert said. "It's nice to see us do it now, especially after a three-day layoff (before the start of the tournament), where we didn't practice at all. These last two games (including a semifinal win over Libertyville), we're extremely proud of how we played, especially at the defensive end of the floor."