For a Mundelein girls basketball team that won only a handful of games last season, learning to win is still a skill the players are working on.
Holding big leads is part of that learning curve.
Friday night in the semifinals of the Mustangs Holiday Classic Tournament, Mundelein took one more step forward in the process against Conant.
The hosts jumped out to an 18-point cushion in the second half only to see the scrappy and feisty Cougars bring it back to just 4 points. But in the end, the Mustangs showed resolve and hung on for a hard fought 57-51 win over Conant and a spot in Saturday night's title match.
Mundelein (9-5) will face Grayslake North for the championship at 8 p.m.; Conant will take on Vernon Hills in the third-place contest at 6:30 p.m.
"I think when we got up, we let up on our intensity, and Conant is a good team and you can't do that against good teams like that," said Mundelein senior Lauren Rouse (14 points). "I think we regained our composure and were able to make the plays to win in the end."
The Mustangs blew the game open early in the second quarter, using a 13-0 run that gave the hosts a 13-3 cushion just 90 seconds into the second quarter. Juniors Jamie Hemmer (9 points) and Natalie Busscher paved the way early to the big lead. Busscher ended up leading all scorers with 15 points.
"The big picture thing of it is we didn't come out like we wanted to," said Conant coach Dan Travers. "We had 7 turnovers in the first quarter and we didn't handle Mundelein's intensity very well. But I am proud of the girls, as to how they responded and came back."
Conant (9-6) fell behind 34-16 to start the third quarter before the Cougars finally put together a run of their own. Led by a powerful inside game that saw Conant outrebound Mundelein 19-1 on the offensive glass, the Cougars cut the margin to 39-30 after three periods.
Freshman Jorri Wachal was a big part of the comeback for Conant. Her 12 second-half points, including 7 in the third quarter, led the Cougars. Wachal also had 7 offensive rebounds.
"That's why Jorri is here -- she is a real good player for us," Travers said. "Now we have to learn to put together back-to-back wins against good teams. We are still learning to do that."
The pressure continued as Conant also forced 9 Mundelein turnovers in the fourth quarter, pulling to within 50-46 with 2:04 to go, but the Cougars couldn't get any closer. Junior Maggie Mahar iced the game for Mundelein in the final minute, hitting 5 of 6 from the line to secure the victory.