Zion-Benton's girls basketball players had an important game to play Saturday. Which meant they couldn't attend a benefit in Winthrop Harbor for a teammate's ill stepdad.
But, oh, did the Zee-Bees ever show up against host Stevenson in a winner-take-all North Suburban Lake Division finale.
Zion-Benton played with poise down the stretch and pulled out a 61-54 win that earned the Zee-Bees a berth in Wednesday's 7 p.m. NSC championship game at Vernon Hills.
"They were really inspired," Z-B coach Tanya Johnson, whose team improved to 20-5 and finished 11-1 in the NSC Lake, said of her players. "It's the best we've played in a month. I'm just really proud of them."
Zion-Benton's players wore black headbands that read, "Playing for P." Pierre is the name of Zee-Bees senior guard Hailey Ruple's stepfather, who has bone cancer.
"It was the team's idea to play for him," said senior guard Tyvena Scafe, whose bucket put Zion-Benton in front for good late. "Her mom made the headbands for us."
Freshman point guard Ashley Richardson led Stevenson (20-8, 10-2) with 16 points, despite not scoring and not attempting a shot in the fourth quarter. Taylor Buford and Janine Fajardo added 14 and 12, respectively, for the Patriots.
"Obviously the most disappointing loss of the year," Stevenson coach Tom Dineen said. "Very winnable game. Bottom line is, we didn't win it."
Zion-Benton won despite playing without starting point guard Marquitta Easley, who was attending a funeral. With their 5-foot-5 sophomore sparkplug out, the Zee-Bees got huge lifts from forward Auri Hampton, who scored a game-high 20 points on 10-of-12 shooting and grabbed 6 rebounds, and center Mia Yarbrough, who posted 19 points and 6 boards.
Scafe added 11 points and 7 rebounds, while Shania Thompson helped hold Stevenson's Sophia Way to 4 points.
"You got to give credit where it's due, and she played phenomenal defense," said Way, who attempted only 2 shots, both from beyond the arc, and hit one. "It became a bit of a mental game at some points, but really what she did was she didn't play help-side defense. She just looked me in the eye and followed me everywhere I went. Every step I took, she took it with me."
With Way attempting to pull Zion-Benton's defense out, Richardson, Fajardo, Dana Morgan -- who started on senior night -- and Jessica Burke got more open looks on the perimeter. Richardson's second 3-pointer of the game gave Stevenson its biggest lead at 33-25 with 6:20 left in the third quarter. Fajardo's 3 with 3:30 to go still had the Patriots in front 40-33. But Carlie Fernandez's 3-pointer pulled Zion-Benton even at 42-42 entering the fourth.
Stevenson looked in good shape early in the fourth when Chloe Ekenberg came off the bench to sink a 3-pointer and split two free throws. Buford's 2 foul tosses gave the Patriots their last lead at 52-50 with 3:20 left. Scafe swished a shot in the lane with 1:02 to go, breaking a 54-54 tie, and Stevenson failed to score in the final minute.
Zion-Benton closed the game with a 7-0 run, with Scafe and Yarbrough each going 2 of 2 from the line in the final 10 seconds.
"Our coach (Dineen) is really big on being competitive, and we all took possessions off at times when we weren't supposed to," Fajardo said. "We all need to play at 100 percent every minute, every second on the floor. I think (Zion-Benton) caught up because we didn't do help side or our defense wasn't correct on their possessions."
Stevenson failed to box out on a missed Zion-Benton free throw late and didn't secure the rebound. Trailing by 3 after another missed foul shot by the Zee-Bees with 15 seconds left, the Patriots turned the ball over.
After snapping Stevenson's five-game winning streak, Zion-Benton will seek to avenge last season's loss to Vernon Hills in the NSC championship game.
"It feels like the best feeling in the world because I never played for a division (championship)," said Scafe, who was living in California last year after playing on varsity for Waukegan as a freshman and sophomore. "We just picked it up mentally because everything that was happening was just mental mistakes. We just kept playing."