From the top of the key, Monica Bahlmann, No. 33, who already had hit two 3s, shot another 3.
"As soon as it left her hand," Vernon Hills girls basketball coach Paul Brettner said, "I'm like, 'Oh, my gosh. That's going in.' "
It splashed the net, sure enough. And 13 seconds later, Vernon Hills was celebrating a stunning 43-42 win over visiting Zion-Benton in the North Suburban Conference championship game Wednesday night.
Bahlmann's heroics gave the Cougars their second NSC title in a row.
Three 3s for No. 33. Sounds like her lucky number -- now, anyway.
"Must be," said a beaming Bahlmann, a 5-foot-10 junior reserve and one of three (coincidentally) Bahlmanns to come through Vernon Hills program. Big sister Brie started on last year's Class 3A state runner-up team. Freshman Becky got promoted to the varsity earlier this season.
" 'Mo' did great," said Vernon Hills' Lauren Webb, who had 10 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists. "She's one of those people who every day at practice works so hard. She actually gets some of the highest numbers when we do three-point things."
Funny thing is, when Bahlmann sank her late 3-pointer, it gave Vernon Hills (22-5) its first lead of the game.
"I've been in games where the first lead was the first 10 seconds, and that was it," said Brettner, whose Cougars trailed 15-10 after one quarter, 31-24 at halftime and 36-33 after three. "So this was much better."
Down 40-34 after Zion-Benton center Mia Yarbrough (game-high 16 points, 6 rebounds) calmly sank 2 free throws with 2:27 left, Vernon Hills got back-to-back big plays from its Division-I duo. The Bowling Green-bound Webb scored on a post-up move. And then just 22 seconds later, Vermont-recruit Sydney Smith (14 points, 6 rebounds, 2 blocks) took a Bahlmann pass and buried her third 3-pointer of the night, pulling the Cougars within 40-39 with 1:36 to go.
"That's what they do," Brettner said of Webb and Smith. "Credit Zion for defending them very well and putting a lot of bodies on them. But when we need them, they're there."
Two free throws by Krystal Walker with exactly a minute left had Zion-Benton (20-6) in front 42-39, and the Zee-Bees still clung to a 42-40 lead when they missed a free throw with 25 seconds left. The Zee-Bees then had another chance to extend their lead, but Bahlmann came up with a steal in the Cougars backcourt. As she crossed midcourt, she fed the ball to Smith, who got it back to her teammate for a clean look up top.
"A big part of it was Syd," Bahlmann, who finished with 9 points, said of her winning bucket. "She got open. She saw me, because the girl was on her, and I was wide open."
Out of timeouts, Zion-Benton hurried the ball into the frontcourt. But Smith came up with a steal and flipped the ball happily upcourt as time ran out.
"That was a tough one," Zion-Benton coach Tanya Johnson said. "But I couldn't ask for a better effort from the kids. They battled. I wish I had five timeouts."
Kasey Firnbach's gutsy effort under the boards yielded her 7 points, 7 rebounds and 3 steals for Vernon Hills, which extended its winning streak to 11 games. Since Webb returned to the lineup after missing 18 of her team's first 19 games with a foot injury, the Cougars are 8-0.
"I just think, overall, our team wasn't being as tough as we need to be," Webb said. "We need to have a little bit more composure. We were getting the ball and rushing. We were missing some cuts, some opportunities. We needed to take a few more breaths. I think we did that more in the fourth quarter."
Marquitta Easley, who ended the first half with a 3-pointer, had 9 points for Zion-Benton, which was trying to avenge last year's loss in this game.
"From a spectator's standpoint, that was a great game," Johnson. "Who would have expected Zion, at the beginning of the year, to be playing for a conference championship? I'm happy with our kids."