The Burlington Central girls basketball team had the momentum and appeared poised to pull off the upset.
Until, that is, Vernon Hills junior Lauren Webb snatched it away in the blink of an eye.
Webb drove the lane and scored just nine seconds after Burlington Central had tied the game with 3:49 left to play, a basket that provided Vernon Hills with the springboard it needed to claim a 39-31 win over the Rockets in the Class 3A Hoffman Estates supersectional Monday night.
Webb scored 9 of her 11 points in the fourth quarter, including going 5-for-5 at the free-throw line, as the Cougars sealed their second straight trip to the IHSA Final Four by scoring the final 8 points of the game.
The Cougars (30-2) now get a rematch with three-time defending Class 3A state champion Montini in Friday's noon state semifinal at Redbird Arena in Normal. Top-ranked Montini, which defeated Vernon Hills 56-38 in last year's state championship game, rolled over Chicago Phillips 72-41 Monday in the Hinsdale Central supersectional.
Burlington Central, in an IHSA Elite Eight game for the first time, finishes the season a school-record 27-5 and, with only two seniors on the roster, great expectations for the future.
"They were really closing out our shooters and boxing out real hard so we saw it as an opportunity to take the ball to the basket," said Webb. "We were all focused and we were very composed tonight. I had confidence shooting free throws that even if I missed my team would keep up the great defense. It wasn't our best offensive night but every time we missed a shot we got back on defense."
"That quick basket really hurt and then we had some quick shots after that," said Burlington Central coach Mark Smith.
Vernon Hills coach Paul Brettner was confident with Webb at the line.
"She's very calm," Brettner said. "She's one of those flat-line kids who is never up and never down."
It's not that the Rockets weren't composed, but their first-half shooting woes (5-for-30) and a monster first half from Cougars' senior Meri Bennett-Swanson put BC in a hole it couldn't climb all the way out of, although the Rockets did make it interesting.
Bennett-Swanson, who will play next year at DePaul with Burlington Central coach Smith's daughter Kelsey, who was in attendance Monday, scored 8 of her 12 points in the first half, as well as grabbing 8 of her 12 rebounds. She also had 5 blocked shots and altered several others.
"It really wasn't in the game plan but it's something we've been working on relentlessly all season," said Bennett-Swanson of her first-half inside dominance. "We knew we had the height advantage but you can't predict passes like our guards had tonight."
Leading 6-5 after the first quarter, the Cougars opened up a 10-point lead with two minutes left in the half and had held BC scoreless for over 10 minutes. The Rockets were, at one point, just 2-for-27 shooting, but freshman Shelby Holt hit twice and senior Camille Delacruz nailed a jumper just inside the 3-point line with one second left to make it a 17-11 Cougar lead at halftime, a lead Vernon Hills maintained throughout the third quarter.
But the Rockets came back on the strength of an Alison Colby basket and a 3-pointer from freshman Sam Pryor to make it a 29-27 game early in the fourth and after two Webb free throws made it 31-27, freshman Kayla Ross scored to keep BC within two. Then, Delacruz stole the ball at midcourt and went in for a layup to tie it at 31-31 with 3:49 left, and it appeared the Rockets had seized the momentum.
But Webb's drive through the lane and basket just nine seconds later, and then a Bennett-Swanson block on the other end restored the momentum for the more experienced Cougars, who got 2-for-2 free-throw shooting down the stretch from Webb, junior Vermont recruit Sydney Smith and Bennett-Swanson, while the young Rockets turned the ball over twice and were unable to score again.
"We were right there," said BC coach Smith. "We didn't play like we did the last two games but there's a lot to be said for the way we came back. It's a big game and we were a little rushed but (Vernon Hills) made us rush. The comeback was a fantastic feeling. I thought we had the momentum, we just couldn't get the bucket we needed.
"It's been a great run and I'm so proud of the girls. They have to experience this to get better. We'll be back."
Sydney Smith added 8 points and 8 rebounds for the Cougars, who were 14-for-41 shooting and owned the glass 42-26. Senior Alina Lehocky had 7 rebounds, as did Webb. Colby, who was in early foul trouble, had 9 points and 5 rebounds for the Rockets. Delacruz, who will play soccer at Northern Iowa next year, added 9 points, 4 steals and 4 assists.
"I'm so proud of this team," Delacruz said. "I did not expect to be here. It was a great team effort and everyone left it out on the court today. I expect great things from them in the future. I see a state title coming."
But for this year, it's Vernon Hills that will get a crack at that state title -- again.