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The deep breath that Lauren Webb sighs before each and every free throw, including the knee-shakers that Vernon Hills' basketball star sank downstate, is her solution for calming her nerves.
Her "flat-line" demeanor that Vernon Hills coach Paul Brettner referred to following Webb's steadiness at the stripe against Burlington Central in the supersectional?
Webb doesn't entirely agree with the observation.
"I'd say I get pretty excited -- high and low -- sometimes," said Webb, a 6-foot junior whose game keeps growing by leaps.
"I mean, I'm a teenage girl."
She's a talented teen who's competed in back-to-back state championship games the last two seasons and who's understandably tickled at what she and her teammates accomplished at Redbird Arena in Normal last weekend.
Webb's 21-point effort, which included a 6-of-6 showing from the foul line in overtime, led the Cougars to a 48-45 upset of three-time defending state champ Montini in the state semifinals. The next day, the novice point guard scored 17 points and grabbed 10 rebounds against Quincy Notre Dame, which capped an undefeated season with a 62-45 win in the Class 3A state championship game.
"We'd been working hard all season," Webb said. "To finally be able to show off how hard we'd been working was a great feeling."
With a state audience watching, Webb showed what hard work and the courage can do for a player. In her first season operating the point, after playing forward each of her first two seasons on varsity, she led the Cougars to a school-record 31 wins, including a history-making one in the North Suburban Conference championship game. Her play downstate clinched her selection as captain of the Daily Herald's Lake County girls basketball all-area team.
She averaged a team-best 13 points and nearly 6 rebounds per game.
"Her mentality of taking everything in stride really helps," Brettner said of the AP all-state honorable mention selection. "We had some games where it went against us in parts of the game, but you'd look at her and you couldn't tell if things were going poorly. And if we were beating a team by a whole lot, you couldn't necessarily tell it, either. She brings the same attitude to each game and each scenario."
Take free throws.
When games where on the line, the Cougars wanted the ball in Webb's trusty hands. In Vernon Hills' 50-47 win over Cary-Grove in the championship game of Mundelein's Christmas tournament, Webb made all 6 of her free throws in the fourth quarter (Vernon Hills was 20 of 20 for the game).
Against Burlington Central in the supersectional at Hoffman Estates, Webb scored 9 of her 11 points in a high-intensity fourth quarter, shooting 5 of 5 from the line to help the Cougars pull away for a 39-31 win.
Webb dropped in 12-of-14 foul shots against Montini downstate.
With its unflappable veteran at the line taking her deep breaths, Vernon Hills could breathe easy.
Funny that Webb used to sweat free throws.
Then her feeder coach Rick Binder gave her some advice.
"I used to get really nervous at the line," Webb said. "One day he told me, 'Just take a deep breath.' So before every free throw I take a nice deep breath. It calms me down a lot."
Her mental toughness also explains her knack for delivering when pressure is mounting.
She scored 22 points against Belvidere North in last year's Elgin supersectional. Downstate, she scored 13 points against Springfield and Montini.
She dropped in a game-high 20 points against host Zion-Benton in this season's NSC title game, giving Vernon Hills a 51-50 win and making the Cougars the first Prairie Division team to capture the trophy.
Her 18 points led Vernon Hills in the regional final against host Lakes.
"She has the ability to take over whenever she wants," Brettner said. "It's great for us that she takes over these big-stage games. In the supersectional and semifinal, she was often the best player on the court."
Brettner calls Webb a great teammate. So it's not surprising that she wanted to credit her teammates for her play downstate.
"If you look at the Quincy Notre Dame game, Brie Bahlmann and Alina (Lehocky) were setting amazing picks for me," Webb said. "(Quincy Notre Dame) was a really hard team to take the ball up against. They had a lot of pressure. The way my teammates were getting open made my job as a point guard a lot easier."
Webb likely won't play point guard in college. But she volunteered to play the position for the Cougars since they were in need following the graduation of Abby Springer. She credited Brettner and assistant coach Andy Bitta for helping her with the transition.
"I think (playing point guard) did make me a lot better, especially because it helped me with my ball-handling, which will be important in college," Webb said. "Coach Brettner and Coach Bitta both helped me a lot with my quickness. Sometimes I'd dribble with my back to the defender because I was taller. It made it harder for them to steal the ball. They showed me tricks like that."
AAU ball with the Illinois Elite is next, and more college scholarship offers figure to be coming. Central Michigan, Evansville, Loyola and Kent State have already made their pitch.
"I'm definitely not in any rush," Webb said.
She never seems to be on the court, either.