The Kiddie Corps grew up a whole lot Friday night.
Burlington Central's girls basketball team bolted out to a 12-point halftime lead and then held on for dear life, finally outlasting Plano 38-34 to win the Class 3A Burlington Central regional championship.
The regional title is the first for the Rockets since 1990 and fourth in program history. Central (25-4) will play Marian Central, a 64-56 overtime winner against Woodstock North at Woodstock Friday, in the 7:30 p.m. sectional semifinal Tuesday at Genoa-Kingston. Rockford Lutheran will meet Sterling and former Burlington Central coach Julie Schroeder in Monday's semifinal.
"What a feeling," smiled first-year BC coach Mark Smith, who won one regional title as St. Charles North's boys coach. "It's not easy to do. It's been a long time. A lot of years they had to go through Hampshire but these girls don't know anything about that history. They let their instincts take over and they've done pretty good."
The Rockets were firing on all cylinders early Friday in jumping to a 9-2 lead. Leading 14-11 after one quarter, sophomore Alison Colby hit two 3-pointers and freshman Shelby Holt one in the second quarter and the Rockets' defense held second-seeded Plano (22-7) to 3 of 12 shooting as BC opened up a 29-14 halftime lead.
The 6-foot Colby had a monster game, scoring 15 points, grabbing 6 rebounds and contributing 4 steals. Most importantly, though, she played stellar defense on 6-foot-4 Plano junior Clarissa Martinez. Even though Martinez scored a game-high 18 points, Colby and the Rockets contested her every move and held her to 9 of 19 shooting, with all but one of her shots coming in the paint.
"Alison, for the most part, did a real nice job, especially defending the post," said Smith. "That kid (Martinez) is really tough to defend. And (Colby's) 3s were huge in the first half. We knew we'd be able to stretch it out and Alison was up to the task tonight."
"I have experience playing against bigger players in AAU," Colby said. "No second chances. I knew we had to get the win and pull out all the stops. It's been 23 years. It feels great and I'm so happy."
Plano, coached by former Bartlett softball coach Mario Serra, didn't go away quietly despite the halftime deficit. The Reapers, in fact, held the Rockets to 1 of 13 field goal shooting in the second half but BC was able to freeze the ball with the lead and knock down its free throws, finishing the night 9-for-10 at the line.
By the end of the third quarter the Reapers had cut the Rocket lead to 31-30 as Central went 0-for-10 in the third quarter. Plano then took a 32-31 lead on a Martinez basket to open the fourth quarter but Central got 2 free throws from freshman Sam Pryor to go ahead 33-32, and after Plano (15-for-42 shooting) missed two shot attempts to retake the lead, Holt (10 points) spotted up and hit a huge 3-pointer with 5:32 to go that put BC ahead 36-32.
"Shelby didn't do much of anything all night then she hits that huge 3 to go up by four," Smith said. "That was just huge."
"When you're off shooting you just have to play through it," Holt said. "I knew my shot would fall when I needed it to. It came at a great time. This is unbelievable. This is the greatest time of my life so far. To win a regional as a freshman ... it's just crazy."
After Holt's 3-pointer, neither team scored for nearly 4 minutes as the Rockets, led by savvy senior point guard Camille Delacruz, were able to control the ball. Plano made it 36-34 on a Zhate Jackson basket with 1:39 to go, and the Rockets had the possession arrow on a held ball with 37 seconds left. Two seconds later Colby calmly sank 2 free throws to provide the final margin as Plano missed 2 free throws and 4 shots in the final 30 seconds, before BC freshman Kayla Ross (7 points) stole the ball with 5 seconds left to seal the win.
"It was a gritty, grind-it-out fourth quarter," said Smith. "Sometimes you have to have a little luck and we were able to hold onto the ball long enough and Alison was awesome with her free throws."