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RICHMOND — Burlington Central girls basketball coach Mark Smith took his team to see DePaul's women, the team Smith's daughter Kelsey plays for, take on Providence last weekend as a team bonder for the Rockets.
"They just let it fly," said Smith of Doug Bruno's Blue Demons. "Our girls were like, 'hey coach ...' So we decided if they've got an open shot, let them take it."
Rocket freshman Shelby Holt had a bunch of open shots in Saturday's first quarter at Richmond-Burton.
She took them. And made them.
Holt, who was sick and did not play against Richmond in BC's 22-point win Dec. 18, hit an uncanny five 3-pointers in the first quarter on 7 attempts, on her way to six 3s for the day and a game-high 21 points as BC took down Richmond 56-34 to claim the outright championship of the Big Northern East, Central's first conference title since 2006-07. It's also the first conference crown for Smith, the veteran coach who is in his first year at Central.
And to think there's five freshmen and two sophomores contributing to what could become a record-breaking season for the program.
"We set some goals at the beginning of the year and one of them was to win the conference," said Smith, whose 19-4 team could threaten the school record for wins, which is 23 set by the 2006-07 team. "They're just so fun to coach and they work so hard and they're so full of energy."
Richmond (11-11, 6-3), which will finish second in the BN-East, was no match for the conference champs on this day. The host Rockets hung with their guests at 8-7 with 3:37 left in the first quarter when Holt, who had made her first 3-pointer 90 seconds into the game, just plain went off. She hit from behind the arc with 3:08 left, did it again 25 seconds later, then closed a 14-0 BC run with back-to-back 3s at 1:58 and 1:07. By then Central (10-0 BN-E) was ahead 22-7.
"Because I didn't play against them last time, coming into this game I felt like I had to prove that I'm a big part of our team," said Holt, who made 6 of 11 from 3-point range on the day. "They hadn't seen me play before so that was a big advantage for me. The whole situation is mind-blowing. Everyone is so excited. We worked so hard for this."
Richmond coach Courtney (Weibel) LuDois, who once held the Illinois career 3-point record when she played at Hononegah, was impressed with Holt's performance but wished her team had defended better.
"She came out hot," LuDois said. "The disappointing thing was we didn't make the adjustments. It took us way too long to adjust."
With the big lead, Smith rotated his starters and his reserves throughout the second quarter sans sophomore starter Alison Colby, who is out with a concussion. Richmond closed the gap to 29-19 at halftime but senior guard Camille Dela Cruz hit a 3-pointer 59 seconds into the second half to make it a 32-19 game and the closest R-B would come the rest of the way was 11. BC finished 11 of 21 from 3-point range. Dela Cruz scored 5 points, had 3 steals and 4 assists in playing her usual steady floor game, leading to a conference title in her senior year.
"It's great," said Dela Cruz of the championship. "I can't even put it into words. We bonded as a team so quickly and meshed together perfectly."
Freshman Kayla Ross added 16 points and 6 rebounds for the Rockets, who shot 20-for-39 for the game. Freshman Samantha Pryor added 7 points and senior Erika Haynes, even though she didn't score, had 6 rebounds and 4 steals and drew the praise of her coach.
"Kayla's our energizer bunny and Erika Haynes had her best game of the year today," Smith said. "She was rebounding and she was all over the court getting steals."
While Smith will allow his team to savor the conference title, he and the Rockets have another goal in mind next — the program's first regional title since 1990. BC is the top seed in its own Class 3A regional, which will commence Feb. 11, after the Rockets close out the regular season with nonconference tests against Streamwood and St. Charles North and their final two BN-East games against Marengo and North Boone.
"We still have more goals to fulfill," said Dela Cruz.