One of the biggest crowds to watch a Maine East girls basketball game turned out Friday night in Park Ridge.
And it turned out to be a real celebration.
The Blue Demons awarded their enthusiastic backers a historic win as they captured their first girls basketball conference championship with a 48-44 victory over Maine West, which is coincidentally the conference's queen of divisional crowns with 25.
"There's no words to describe it," said sophomore guard Janelle Alba Garner, whose four free throws in the final 25.5 seconds helped seal the deal. "This program has had so many ups and downs. They used to call us Maine ‘Easy'. But the fact that we get to put a banner up in our gym shows that isn't really true."
The truth is this may be the finest girls basketball team the school has featured.
The Blue Demons (19-7) have a school record for wins, and finished 9-1 in the Central Suburban North, one game ahead of the Warriors (15-10, 8-2), who handed East its only league loss, 47-26 on Jan. 10.
"The first time we played them wasn't the real Maine East," said senior Elanta Slowek, who chipped in 9 points. "We came to play this time. We just had to stay mentally prepared and focused."
"The last time we were very nervous and we just wanted to go, go, go." added senior guard Jazlene Gonzalez who scored a team-high 15 points with 4 3-pointers. "We played basketball this time. We've wanted to beat Maine West since freshman year so this means a lot."
The Blue Demons had never defeated a Maine West team since Hall of Fame coach Derril Kipp took the reigns in 1982.
"We didn't deserve to win this game," said Kipp, whose team climbed back to within 3 points after trailing by as many as 12 points 7:15 left in the game. "They played harder than us. They wanted the game. We didn't put forth the effort to win."
St. Xavier recruit Brittany Collins put forth a strong effort with a game-high 18 points and 17 rebounds and 4 steals, her 85th double-double in 116 games.
Maine West's all-time leading scorer is only 19 points from 2,000 for her career.
Other top rebounders for West on Friday were Julia Huinker (6), Abbey Herling (5), Kelly Adamek (4) and Liwag (3). Huinker also had 3 assists with some nice passes inside to Collins. The Warriors will play a 1:30 p.m. game today at Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy in Chicago.
"We've got to play with more determination and heart," Kipp said.
The Warriors trailed 42-30 when Shaylee Sloan hit her second basket of the second half. But West kept closing the gap, getting to within 44-41 on a 17-footer by Monica Liwag, who also hit a 3-pointer during the Warriors rally.
West senior Erin Ross (3 assists) also hit a 3-pointer in the final quarter. as the Warriors kept the Maine East faithful on the edge of their seats.
"It was the longest quarter of basketball I've played,." Slowek said. "It was too long. But we won and I still can't t believe it. It's going to hit me but it hasn't right now. It's overwhelming."
"I'm so proud of these players," said Maine East coach Karol Hanusiak, who starts five seniors. "Our seniors are posted and senior smart.
"They performed the way I thought they would. They believe in themselves so much. I can't believe they won't be here next year."
But what will be there is a banner to remind the coach of the winningest girls team in school history and the only one that can say it's CSL North champions.