First Vernon Hills got a chance to mount a comeback. Then Benet took a turn. But when Vernon Hills gave Benet a second chance, the Cougars sure made it difficult.
Vernon Hills captured a 70-63 victory Monday morning at the 23rd annual McDonald's Shootout in Villa Park, overcoming a 14-point second-quarter deficit to win.
"It was fun to see," Benet coach Peter Paul said of that early lead. "But we knew they were going to come back. They're that deep, and plus they're that tall. We knew they were going to come back."
"We just came out excited but not ready to play," said Vernon Hills' Lauren Webb, a 6-foot junior.
It showed, with 11 first-quarter turnovers helping Benet.
"Our passes definitely weren't crisp," Webb added.
That changed in the second quarter, with a 14-4 Cougars run reminding Benet this game wouldn't be easy.
Benet (13-8) still held a 31-30 lead at halftime, but Vernon Hills (21-2), ranked seventh in the Daily Herald Top 20, took its first lead at 39-38 with 3:37 left in the third quarter on a Kasey Firnbach lay-in. Before they knew it, the No. 19 Redwings were down by 7 points.
"We certainly got enough shots," Paul said. "If we could have pressured them a little bit more, it could have gone the other way. But all in all we battled hard. They're a good team and they're big. And we're kind of tiny."
Benet might be relatively tiny with no 6-footers, but the Redwings are pesky, and they made it tough on Vernon Hills just to get the basketball upcourt.
"It's definitely rougher for bringing the ball up, but we did a good job feeding our posts, so that evened it out," Webb said.
"We tried," Paul added. "We wanted to pressure them because we felt if we made it a half-court game they'd have the advantage because they have the height. They've got that high-low, and every time (6-2 senior Meri Bennett-Swanson) got it down low, she was deadly."
Benet caught up, retaking the lead early in the fourth quarter on a Christen Prasse 3-pointer. But the Cougars showed just how important it is to make free throws. After missing their first two of the game, they didn't miss again until 22 seconds remained in the game, a string of 23 straight free throws to frustrate the Redwings.
"That's pretty good," Cougars coach Paul Brettner said. "We'll take that. That's hard to beat. That team's coming back. They can make some 3s, but us hitting those free throws, that's key."
It was the Cougars' ace in the hole, and a reason they knew not to panic early.
"With the offensive firepower that we have and the ability to play defense that we do," Brettner said, "I don't know that there's a lot of games that we're out of. They have that mentality and it's good."
Prasse led all scorers with 22 points, but Webb had 21, including 7-of-7 free-throw shooting in the final 4:33, and junior Sydney Smith notched 20 points for the Cougars. Bennett-Swanson scored 13 despite foul trouble.