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When Lauren Webb couldn't count on her right foot this season, at least she could rely on her right hand, which is about as steady as they come.
So the wounded Vernon Hills senior shot free throws in practice.
"I definitely practiced them a lot more, because for a while I wasn't allowed to jump or run," said Webb, who played only one half of basketball in the Cougars' first 19 games. "So really the only thing you can do then is free throws and a few easy shots."
As clutch a free-throw shooter as Lake County has seen the last four seasons, Webb showed Wednesday night that she has little rust, if any, to shake off. Her 16-of-16 performance from the foul line and a gutty performance by her and her teammates helped Vernon Hills rally for a 76-73 win over visiting North Chicago in three overtimes.
"She shot a fair amount (of free throws) in her absence," Cougars coach Paul Brettner said. "That's the one thing she could do. Whenever we were doing stuff that she couldn't do, she would be shooting."
Webb's 3 free throws with 0.8 seconds left in regulation were as clutch as they come. She made all 10 of her free throws in the fourth quarter to help the Cougars erase an 11-point deficit.
"Thank God for Lauren Webb," teammate Sydney Smith said.
Smith was spectacular too, scoring 15 of her team-high 23 points after the third quarter and grabbing 9 rebounds. Webb, playing just her fourth game and third in a row, added a season-high 22 points. Kasey Firnbach finished with 15 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists, as Vernon Hills (17-5, 7-2) put itself in the driver's seat in the North Suburban Conference Prairie Division.
The Cougars own the tiebreaker with Antioch, which is also 7-2 in the division. Vernon Hills will win its third straight NSC Prairie title by winning its remaining three division games against Wauconda, Round Lake and Grant.
When Vernon Hills and North Chicago (13-9, 6-3) last played each other, on Dec. 10, the Warhawks prevailed 52-50 in OT, snapping the Cougars' 31-game NSC Prairie winning streak.
"We've been waiting for this game since we lost to them the last time in overtime," Smith said. "We knew it was going to be a good game. They're a very physical team. They're a great team. Samantha Rodriguez, she's a star. That whole team, they're so good."
Rodriguez and sophomore center Tineesha Coleman each finished with 25 points for North Chicago, which led 52-41 after Rodriguez's layup with 2:57 left in the fourth. But Smith answered with a layup, Webb hit 2 foul shots and the comeback was on.
With Webb handling the ball on every possession, she fed Firnbach for an 18-footer and Haley Lieberman (7 points) for a layup with 35 seconds to go to pull Vernon Hills within 55-53.
The Cougars trailed 56-53 when Webb was fouled on a 3-point attempt with less than a second left on the clock. She rolled in the first free throw, before swishing the last two, despite being iced by North Chicago after the second.
"There was a little pressure," Webb said. "But I've gotten used to the pressure over the years, especially with Brettner's drills."
Neither team could consistently hit free throws in the extra periods. North Chicago missed 8 foul shots, while Vernon Hills misfired on 11.
In the end, Vernon Hills -- which squandered a five-point lead in the first OT -- prevailed when Smith's 3-pointer with 1:55 left in the third gave the Cougars the lead for good. She then sealed the win by hitting 2 free throws with 4.4 seconds on the clock.
"Everything we did was perfect as a team," Smith said. "Every single person in those overtimes did exactly what they needed to do. Katherine (Koczwara) was diving on the floor left and right. 'Liebs' (Haley Lieberman) was getting to the hoop. She might have missed a few free throws, but it didn't matter because Kasey (Firnbach) was there to rebound them. Mo (Monica Bahlmann) was there to rebound them. We were hitting shots. We wanted it more in overtime."
North Chicago used an 11-0 run to take a 24-16 lead midway through the second quarter. The Warhawks then went into a stall, with Rodriguez holding the ball near the half-court line. Vernon Hills stood in its 2-3 zone, content, as time ticked off. After nearly four full minutes, the visitors started moving the ball, and their patience paid off with Kylah Collins (15 points) beating the buzzer with a 3-pointer to make it 27-16.
"I understand it," Brettner said. "But at the same time, Syd had 2 fouls and Lauren is coming off an injury. I don't mind taking four minutes off the clock at that point. It wasn't great for the crowd, but I thought it helped us a little."