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The kissing of the championship plaque, which had everything to do with a tradition started last year and nothing to do with it being Valentine's Day, capped a sweet night for Vernon Hills.
And on a day to show appreciation for those who mean a lot, Sydney Smith made sure to acknowledge li'l Haley Lieberman, who's got heart.
The Cougars blocked 6 shots, including 4 in the opening quarter, en route to a 65-34 win over host Lakes in the teams' Class 3A regional final Thursday night. The last of the swats came compliments of the 5-foot-4 Lieberman, the team's starting sophomore guard.
"She is one of the hardest workers on the team," Smith, who last week committed to play Division I basketball for the University of Vermont, said after totaling 15 points (three 3-pointers), 12 rebounds, 3 blocks and 3 steals. "She's clearly at a disadvantage being that height, but she uses it to her advantage. She's able to get rebounds. She's able to score. She gets into the paint. A lot of times we see her go up for layups and we're like, 'Liebs, please don't get knocked down.' But she gets knocked down and it's a 'and-1.' She's done an amazing job."
Vernon Hills' amazing season now includes 27 wins, which ties the school-record total the Cougars amassed last season in reaching the Class 3A state championship game. Vernon Hills (27-2) will play in its own sectional Tuesday at 6 p.m. The Cougars' semifinal opponent will be the winner of tonight's Chicago Northside regional final between Grayslake Central and Antioch.
Lakes (17-13) was led by senior forward Terese McMahon with 12 points. The Eagles played their second straight game without starters Amanda Smith (ACL) and Amanda Beetschen (sprained ankle).
The regional title was just the second in Vernon Hills' history. It was the third time in as many meetings this season that the Cougars defeated the Eagles.
"Human nature tells you that you might let down," Vernon Hills coach Paul Brettner said. "We came out hard, and so did they. They got a couple of injuries, but they still got plenty left. McMahon is a heck of a player."
Vernon Hills' Lauren Webb led all scorers with 18 points, including 12 in the third quarter, and the junior forward also had 7 rebounds. Besides Smith, Brie Bahlmann (12 points) also scored in double figures for the Cougars, who closed the opening quarter with a 10-0 run to lead 13-3.
"They're such a team," McMahon said. "They're always helping each other up, they stick together, and they just have that great team chemistry. I respect them for that."
Lieberman had a memorable sequence in the fourth quarter, blocking a shot at one end and then skying for an offensive rebound at the other end. She then fed Bahlmann for a short jumper.
"The block, I don't know how I did that," said a smiling Lieberman, who also hit a 3-pointer and had a steal. "Coach Brettner doesn't prefer us blocking (shots), but I was like, 'I guess I'm going to go for it.' So I went for it."
"That's the energy she can bring," Brettner said of his petite playmaker. "She's a high-energy, very-quick player. She can do those kind of things."
Lakes, which was playing in a regional final for the first time, enjoyed the best season in the school's eight-year history.
"We had a winning season. I couldn't have asked for anything more," McMahon said. "Obviously I would have loved to have won this game and gone farther, but I'm satisfied with our whole season."
Vernon Hills' 13-of-14 free-throw shooting helped compensate for 21 turnovers.
Lakes, which shot just 1 of 13 from the floor in the first quarter, also got 8 points (two 3s) from Sam Ney.
Vernon Hills was up 27-13 at halftime and 46-27 after three.
"We played really good defense all year," Lakes coach Pete Schneider said. "Tonight we didn't."