NORMAL -- Montini's four kids quietly sat and stared ahead in front of the media room, red-faced but not crying.
This was a stunned sadness.
The closer you are to the holy grail, the higher the expectations, the bigger the hurt.
Every kid in that Montini locker room expected to be playing for a fourth straight sate title today -- something no other program has done before -- but instead Jason Nichols must prepare his kids for a third-place game.
"It's going to be difficult," Nichols said. "Fortunately, we have 22 or so hours before tomorrow's game. This stings, but I'm still proud of them."
He has every right to be, and he should be.
There's a reason no girls basketball program has never won four straight titles -- it's darned difficult.
Montini's kids won't get a chance to play for it, but they went down fighting like true champions.
Trailing by 11 after three quarters, looking seemingly out of it, shooting terribly, facing a Vernon Hills team determined to avenge last year's championship loss, the Broncos somehow found "it."
In a fourth quarter eerily similar to last year's Montini semifinal miracle against Hillcrest last year, the Broncos came all the way back to tie it, then took the lead. They did it with more or less one offensive option, Kelly Karlis scoring all 18 of her points in the fourth quarter and overtime.
And they did it with one starter, Sara Ross, fouled out and another, Kateri Stone, playing on a bad ankle sprain.
The best teams find a way when it doesn't seem to be their day.
"As bad as we played, we still had a shot at the end," Nichols said. "That's the crazy thing."
That's the funny thing about Montini. For a team that routinely blows teams out, that is almost never challenged, these girls never seem to panic when the chips are down.
They did it last year to Hillcrest. They rallied from a double-digit fourth-quarter deficit to beat Wheaton Warrenville South the first week of the season and came back from 11 down in the third quarter against Rolling Meadows at Christmas.
Those good vibes were vivid in the memory bank Friday.
"I was thinking about them," Montini senior Malayna Johnson said. "I definitely thought once we got to overtime we were coming back to win it."
Unfortunately, even a cat only has nine lives. Montini was living on No. 9 when overtime hit Friday.
"There's only so many times you can battle back, and I think we just ran out of gas," Nichols said. "And after all that happened, it still came down to one last shot."
Other days, most days, the shot goes in or Montini makes a play late or grabs a big rebound or gets a key stop.
Just not this day.
"I definitely thought once we got to overtime we could pull it off, would win this game," Stone said. "Shots just didn't fall for us. We didn't do it today. It just didn't happen."
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