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Class 3A state semifinal
When: Noon, Friday at Redbird Arena, Normal
How they got here: Montini beat Crane 85-20 and Rosary 65-23 to win the Crane regional, then defeated Westinghouse 67-42 and Glenbard South 58-29 to win the Nazareth sectional before beating Phillips 72-41 in the Hinsdale Central supersectional. Vernon Hills beat St. Edward 63-33 and Lakes 65-34 to win the Lakes regional, then defeated Grayslake Central 39-26 and Regina Dominican 42-29 to win the Vernon Hills sectional before beating Burlington Central 39-31 in the Hoffman Estates supersectional.
Montini's probable starting lineup: 5-10 Jr. G Sara Ross (6.7 ppg); 6-2 Jr. F Kelly Karlis (7.8 ppg); 6-4 Sr. C Malayna Johnson (8.4 ppg); 5-10 So. G Kelsey Bogdan (3.8 ppg); 6-1 Jr. G Kateri Stone (11.7 ppg).
Vernon Hills' probable starting lineup: 5-10 Jr. Sydney Smith (13.1 ppg); 5-10 Sr. F Alina Lehocky (4.5 ppg); 6-2 Sr. C Meri Bennett-Swanson (10.9 ppg); 5-9 Sr. G Brie Bahlmann (6.0 ppg); 6-0 Jr. PG Lauren Webb (12.6 ppg).
Scouting report: We meet again. The last time these two took the floor at Redbird Arena, Montini rolled out to a 31-10 halftime lead and cruised to a 56-38 win in last year's Class 3A final. Now the Broncos return to try to become the first girls basketball program to win four straight state titles. Don't for a minute think Montini coach Jason Nichols is looking past Friday's opponent.
"They're a year older, a year more confident, they got their big three back," Nichols said, "and they're going to want to beat us. We respect Vernon Hills. We know they'll be motivated and we have to be ready to go."
The "big three" Nichols refers to is Webb, DePaul recruit Bennett-Swanson and Vermont commit Smith, who scored a game-high 17 in last year's final.
This should be Montini's toughest playoff test to date, which isn't saying much. The Broncos have beaten their first five playoff opponents by an average 29 points a game; in fact, 24 of their record 26 straight playoff wins have come by double figures. Vernon Hills struggled against Montini pressure last year, the Broncos scoring 22 points off turnovers. This year Webb has transitioned to point guard.
"They are using their bigs more to bring the ball up against pressure," Nichols said. "We did not turn them over as much last year when their bigs handled it."
Vernon Hills started the season 18-0, dropped games to Stevenson and Trinity in a span of five days in early January, and is 12-0 since. Bennett-Swanson is averaging 10.4 points and 9.8 rebounds per game in the playoffs with four double-doubles. Montini is the rare opponent that more than matches up with Vernon Hills, size-wise.
"They start out with Malayna protecting the basket in that 2-3 zone and they just go out and get you," Vernon Hills coach Paul Brettner said of Montini. "Hopefully, having 3-4 days to prepare for them is better than having 24 hours like last year."
Montini hopes to have a healthier Kateri Stone this weekend. The Broncos' leading scorer missed both sectional games with a high ankle sprain, and shot just 1 of 8 and didn't make a 3-point attempt in her return Monday. Stone has hit 86 3s this year, and freshman Lea Kerstein has emerged as another threat from distance with 55 3s.
The riddle to beating Montini, as always, is solving that matchup zone. Montini has allowed just 34.5 points a game this season and held Class 4A semifinalists Whitney Young and Rolling Meadows to season lows.
"I always say if we're playing good and playing right we'll be OK," Nichols said. "If your heartbeat doesn't go up a little bit playing in these kind of games you're playing the wrong sport."
-- Joshua Welge and Joe Aguilar