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Burlington Central nearly beat the odds
 

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Burlington Central nearly beat the odds
  • Burlington Central coach Mark Smith directs the Rockets Friday against Montini in the Class 3A state semifinals at Redbird Arena in Normal.

    Purchase Photo | Burlington Central coach Mark Smith directs the Rockets Friday against Montini in the Class 3A state semifinals at Redbird Arena in Normal. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Burlington Central coach Mark Smith directs the Rockets Friday against Montini in the Class 3A state semifinals at Redbird Arena in Normal.

    Purchase Photo | Burlington Central coach Mark Smith directs the Rockets Friday against Montini in the Class 3A state semifinals at Redbird Arena in Normal. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

 

NORMAL -- Had a survey been conducted, 9 out of 10 -- heck, probably 99 out of 100 -- responses would have predicted Montini beating Burlington Central in Friday's Class 3A state girls basketball semifinal here by … well, by a lot.

It was the big, bad top-ranked Broncos, their motivation fueled by a stunning loss to Vernon Hills in the semifinals last year, against Central, that "little farm school," that had a nice season but was now, seemingly, out of its element.

It was the team that had won three straight state titles before settling for third place last year, with three seniors heading off to play Division I college basketball, against a Rockets team whose top six players are a junior and five sophomores, a group that lost in the supersectional last year and had no experience under the bright lights of Redbird Arena.

And as I sat with Montini coach Jason Nichols before his team's shootaround on Thursday, I figured it was all coach-speak. He was showing the concern he had to show. His team would surely be a little tense trying to eradicate last year's bad memory and performance. But, still, this was David against Goliath in its purest sense, right?

Well, David almost pulled it off.

Leading 24-21 with less than four minutes to play, the Rockets may have wilted down the stretch of their 34-26 loss but above all they proved they belonged in this setting, and they proved Nichols' nervousness about this game to be spot on.

"All week we heard underdog this and underdog that, and I don't think our girls liked that very much," said Rockets' coach Mark Smith, whose team will take a 27-5 record into Saturday's third-place game against Quincy Notre Dame.

"I think we showed the state we can play."

That the Rockets did, especially on defense. The last time Montini was held to 34 points in a game was December of 2012 in a loss to Peoria Richwoods. This is a team that had won its five postseason games by an average of 42 points, been held under 50 only twice this season and scored more than 70 on 11 different occasions.

"Our defense surprises teams. They don't expect it, especially a tall team like Montini," said Rocket junior Alison Colby, who played stellar defensively all season but especially during the postseason.

The Rockets did struggle offensively Friday, but that's nothing new for teams who play against Montini. In the end it was Montini's defense that won the game, Colgate-bound senior Kateri Stone coming up with the steal and layup that opened the door for the Broncos to come back and win in the final 3:30.

"Once she got that steal it just broke out and the pressure they put on us after that took it away from us," said BC sophomore Kayla Ross, who did a splendid job of shutting down Stone all afternoon.

"We handled their pressure but then they turned it up and it was too much for us," said Rockets sophomore Sam Pryor, who was named third-team all-state by the IBCA on Friday.

But most would have thought by that point of the game the Rockets wouldn't even be in it. And had the ball bounced a bit differently a time or two, it easily could have been Central playing for the state championship Saturday and not Montini.

Or, maybe, had the third-quarter TV timeout not come at the point it did the Rockets would have maintained the momentum they had gained with a 6-0 run to start the second half that had given them an 18-15 lead.

"We're not used to that," said junior Alison Colby. "We're used to huge runs. We didn't have experience here and that just took our momentum away.

"I'm happy and proud we made it here and played the way we did. It hurts but now we have the motivation for next year."

Next year doesn't start until after the Rockets, who return their top six players, take on Quincy Notre Dame in Saturday's third-place game.

"The sting of the loss will affect us but I know the resolve of this team and this family and we'll rebound (Saturday)," said Smith. "We came an inch away from shocking the state. I don't think anybody gave us much of a chance and I'm just so proud of the effort."

As all the Rockets should be.

jradtke@dailyherald.com

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