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NORMAL -- All the way to the bitter end, it was a grind for Montini this weekend.
At least it ended on a good note.
Freshman Lea Kerstein's two free throws with 4.8 seconds left clinched a 42-38 win over Morton in Saturday's third-place game at Redbird Arena.
Bouncing back from Friday's overtime upset loss to Vernon Hills, Montini (35-2) trailed 19-16 at the half, came back to take a 10-point fourth-quarter lead and held off a late Morton charge. It is the fifth state trophy in the last six years for Montini, winner of the last three Class 3A titles.
"We would have brought home a trophy even if we would have lost, but it's better if you win," Montini coach Jason Nichols said. "We didn't play our best basketball this weekend. I think our kids would agree. But you have to give credit to the teams we faced. I think we got a reminder of just how difficult it is to win down here."
Montini missed five straight free throws in the final two minutes, three of them on front ends of 1-and-1s. Kerstein, a 72 percent foul shooter, missed a pair after a Morton intentional foul but given a mulligan calmly sank a pair for the win.
"It was pretty nerve-wracking, a lot of pressure," Kerstein said, "but I knew I had the support of my teammates."
Credit Kerstein and fellow freshman Paulina Castro for Montini's comeback.
The Broncos trailed at halftime just twice all year coming into the weekend, but for the second time in two days ice-cold shooting was a culprit in a 19-16 halftime deficit. Montini was 0 of 13 from 3-point range in the first half, missing its first 14 3s.
Morton still led 21-18 two-plus minutes into the second half after a basket by Illinois recruit Sarah Livingston, but just eight seconds after checking in Castro knocked down a corner 3 for the tie.
Kerstein followed with another corner 3 for the lead, Castro hit a pullup 3 in transition and Kerstein capped off the all-freshman 11-0 run with a tough shot in the lane off glass for a 29-21 lead.
Castro later hit another 3 in the fourth quarter. The 5-foot-5 freshman hit 25 3s at a 46.3 percent rate this season. She and Kerstein also hit clutch fourth-quarter 3s to beat Plainfield East in December.
"My teammates and my coach keep telling me to shoot it," Castro said. "If you don't shoot it, they can't go in. You just have to have confidence."
Montini needed its freshman heroics, with leading scorer Kateri Stone again slowed by a bad ankle.
On Saturday Stone played just 11 minutes, sparingly in the second half, and took just 1 shot. Castro only got in for a minute Friday but made her presence felt Saturday.
"If you're not going to guard her, she's going to shoot it and that's what she did," Nichols said of Castro. "I'm kicking myself in the butt a little bit for not going to her yesterday. Maybe I learned a little something."
Kelly Karlis capped off an outstanding personal weekend with 11 points, 8 rebounds and 4 steals, a Karlis jumper with 4:50 left giving Montini its biggest lead at 40-30. Castro added 9, Sara Ross 8 and Kerstein 7 for Montini, which hit 5 of its last 11 3s. Livingston had 16 points and 12 rebounds for Morton (30-6).
Montini's only senior starter, Malayna Johnson, scored 5 points with 9 rebounds and 4 blocks. In a way, Montini and the Johnsons came full circle at state. Five years ago, led by Malayna's older sister Michala, Montini won its first state trophy, beating this year's Class 3A champ Quincy Notre Dame in the third-place game.
Malayna Johnson, her Montini playing days concluded, will join Michala at Wisconsin next year.
"I'm excited to be here, but I'm also excited to be playing with my sister next year," Johnson said. "Right now I'm just living in the moment."
Montini returns every other player next year, and could be preseason No. 1 in Class 3A.
In many ways the Broncos broke barriers this year. They overcame the loss of four transfers, defeated defending Class 4A champ Whitney Young for their first win at the McDonald's Shootout and set a playoff win record with their 26th straight.
This weekend, perhaps, was a reminder that it's not as easy as Montini's made it look.
"We talked about it before the game, that we are a standard now and that teams want to beat us," Nichols said. "It's disappointing that we did not play in the championship game, but when you sit back you realize all that we accomplished."
Follow Josh on Twitter @jwelge96