NORMAL -- It wasn't as if the Vernon Hills girls basketball team didn't come ready to play Saturday. The Cougars did. But there aren't many teams in the state -- in fact this season there were none -- that could deal with what Quincy Notre Dame threw at the Cougars on this day.
QND jumped out to leads of 9-0 and 15-2 and by the time Vernon Hills recovered it was too late. The Raiders used that start to fuel an eventual 62-45 win over Vernon Hills in the Class 3A girls basketball state championship game at Redbird Arena.
"They just came out really ready to play," said Vernon Hills junior Lauren Webb. "We were ready, but our levels of intensity were different. They had that little extra spark."
The Cougars, who upset top-ranked and three-time defending champion Montini in Friday's semifinals, finished the season 31-3 and bring home the second place trophy for the second straight year.
Webb led Vernon Hills with 17 points and 10 rebounds. Senior Meri Bennett-Swanson and junior Sydney Smith added 8 points each.
The championship is Quincy Notre Dame's third straight. The Raiders won the last two Class 2A titles and became the first school to win consecutive state championships in different classes. It is QND's fifth state championship in girls basketball. The Raiders (30-0) become the first undefeated state champion in Class 3A since the IHSA went to four classes in 2007-08.
"We're known for our starts and that played a big role today," said Notre Dame coach Eric Orne, whose team went 94-2 in its three straight state championship seasons. "That gave us some breathing room and we needed it. We knew Vernon Hills would come back because Vernon Hills is a fantastic team."
The Cougars did recover from the disastrous start, but every time the door opened a little for them, QND slammed it shut.
"If we'd played them even early it might have been different," said Vernon Hills coach Paul Brettner. "It's one thing to stay (Friday) and watch them play and to watch them on tape but their pressure is just so good. Playing catch-up takes a lot of energy."
"We wanted it as much as they did," said Webb, "but once we finally picked it up it was a game of catch-up."
Vernon Hills almost caught up a few times, but still trailed by 6 points at the end of the third quarter and then just plain ran out of steam.
The Cougars were able to cut the lead to 16-8 by the end of the first quarter and whittled it to 20-19 on back-to-back 3-pointers from Smith, the second coming with 4:13 to go in the half. But QND all-stater Kassidy Gengenbacher came right back with a trey 11 seconds later and after a Vernon Hills turnover -- one of 20 the Cougars committed in the game -- all-stater Jordan Frericks scored to make it 25-19., The Raiders led 30-23 at halftime.
"(Gengenbacher) was an amazing shooter," said Webb of the Notre Dame senior, who scored 20 points and hit 5 of 9 from 3-point range. "It was almost demoralizing. Bri (Bahlmann) and Alina (Lehocky) were playing great defense on her, but she's just an amazing player."
Vernon Hills came back again in the third quarter. After falling behind 37-29 midway through the period, Webb scored four straight points to draw the Cougars within four, 37-33, with 1:57 left in the third. But Gengenbacher hit a 3-pointer with 1:11 to go that may have been the game's biggest dagger.
"That was huge," said Orne. "Kassidy has been doing that for us for three years and that might have been the biggest shot of her career."
Leading 41-35 entering the fourth quarter, Notre Dame scored six straight points and took a 46-35 lead on a basket from Frericks with 6:18 left to play. Webb scored to make it 46-37 but Gengenbacher, who will play at Division II Lindenwood next year, hit another 3-pointer with 5:53 left to extend the Raiders' lead to 49-37 and the closest the Cougars would get the rest of the way was 10. While Vernon Hills won the rebound battle 29-21 and shot a tad better (17 of 33 compared to QND's 19-for-42), the Raiders took better care of the basketball, only committing 10 turnovers, and they had 16 steals, scoring 22 points off VH turnovers.
"They're just so athletic and so tough," Brettner said of the Raiders. "It's a tough press.
"The third quarter was pretty good for us but then in the fourth quarter they just wore us down like they do to a lot of teams. Their starting five is tremendous. (Frericks) is so athletic and fast and the Gengenbacher sisters are very good. They're coached well and they're just a very good team."
Frericks, a senior signed with Missouri, and junior Kristen Gengenbacher added 14 points each for Notre Dame, a program that has had only five losing seasons in 38 years of girls basketball and earned its ninth state tournament trophy. QND's first state title came 30 years ago and that team posted the same 30-0 record as this year's team.
Despite the loss, Brettner and Webb agreed it was a successful weekend for the Cougars. Brettner especially lauded the contributions of his three seniors -- Lehocky, Bahlmann and Bennett-Swanson, who will play at DePaul next year.
"They are fantastic players and people," said Brettner, who needs six wins next season to reach 200 for his VH career. "Hopefully they set a good enough example for young kids coming up to want to do the same thing.
"Only one team gets to go 2-0 here. The win against Montini (Friday) was a great win for our program. Hats off to Notre Dame. They're a great team with a great coach."
Webb will also always remember beating Montini, the team that knocked off the Cougars in the title game last year.
"That definitely was redemption for all of us," she said. "And maybe we'll come back next year."