The Cougars are clawing and growling again, and loving it.
The Vernon Hills Cougars boys basketball team, that is. They improved to 10-3 and will play for fifth place at 3:45 p.m. Saturday in the Wildcat Hardwood Classic at Wheeling against Deerfield.
But their 62-56 win over Niles North on Friday validated their credentials after a demoralizing loss the day before to Naperville Central, a regular in the tournament final four for many years.
The Cougars steadily pulled away from the stubborn Vikings after a dead-even first quarter. As usual, combination guard Bobby Nardini (24 points) paced the scoring and the floor game.
"I think we're playing really well right now," said the 5-foot-10 junior, who hit 5 of his first 6 shots in the second half, three of them 3-pointers, as Vernon Hills pulled away from a 33-29 halftime edge against an athletic, pressing squad with irrepressible forward Duante Stephens (13 points) and ballhawking point guard J.J. Myles, who got into something of a personal duel with Nardini.
A third-quarter blitz proved decisive for Vernon Hills, as Mike Mariella hit back-to-back 3-pointers and Nardini did the same as the score ballooned from 33-29 to 55-41 in Vernon Hills' favor.
Lem Turner dominated around the basket, blocking 6 shots, as the Cougars made it difficult for the Vikings to get clean looks in the second half.
A balanced scoring attack included 10 points from Bo Manso, who is versatile enough to play inside and out, 9 from Mariella, 7 from Mike Weaver and 5 from Turner.
"Robby (Nardini) and Jake Boyer did a nice job handling (Niles North's) pressure," said Vernon Hills coach Matt McCarty.
Now, going forward, "We have to stay poised," said Nardini.