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NORMAL -- Just when it looked like last year was going to happen to the Montini girls basketball team again, senior Kateri Stone, sophomore Lea Kerstein and the top-ranked Broncos stepped up and avoided what would have been a monumental upset.
Trailing unranked Burlington Central by three points with 3:36 left to play in the game, Stone stole a pass and made an uncontested layup, then Kerstein gave Montini the lead for good with a 3-pointer 38 seconds later as the Broncos came from behind to beat the Rockets, 34-26, in the first Class 3A state semifinal at Redbird Arena.
Montini (33-2), which was upset by Vernon Hills in last year's semifinals, will play Joliet Catholic (28-2) at 2 p.m. Saturday for the state championship. Montini will be seeking its fourth state title in the last five years. Burlington Central (27-5) will take on Quincy Notre Dame (29-4) for third place at 12:15 p.m. Saturday. JCA beat defending state champion QND 70-59 in the second semifinal Friday
"I don't know what happened," said Stone of the steal. "It just happened."
"She came out of nowhere," said Broncos' coach Jason Nichols of his Colgate-bound all-stater.
Out of nowhere is also where Burlington Central came to challenge Montini like few teams have this season. The Rockets, making their first trip to an IHSA state final tournament, dictated the tempo of the game with smothering defense and just enough offense.
"Give Burlington Central credit," said Nichols, whose team was held to its lowest point total since a 45-34 loss to Peoria Richwoods on Dcc. 22, 2012.
"They didn't do anything different and neither did we but they play a heck of a defense. They just play awesome team defense. When I looked up at the scoreboard in the fourth quarter and saw we only had 21 points … wow."
That was with 6:18 left in the game after BC sophomore Kayla Ross made 2 free throws to give the Rockets a 24-21 lead.
But Montini, which won its 10th straight, turned up its own defense a notch after that and didn't allow the Rockets to score again until there were 13 seconds left in the game. By that time Montini had built a 32-24 lead, which was also the largest lead of the game for either team.
"We persevered," said Nichols, whose team trailed in the fourth quarter for the third straight year in the semifinals.
"We just had to keep fighting and we did."
In a game where seemingly every shot was contested -- the teams combined to make just 21 of 68 shots -- and layups were few and far between, Stone was able to break through with her steal and layup to pull the Broncos to within one. It was her only basket of the game as Ross limited her touches and held Stone to just 5 shots.
But Kerstein and freshman Kaylee Bambule stepped up, as did senior Kelly Karlis, who led the Broncos with 10 points.
"Even though I wasn't scoring I wasn't worried," said Stone. "Lea stepped up and Kaylee hit some big shots."
Kerstein had 8 points, including 5 in the fourth quarter, while Bambule made the final two baskets of the second quarter to give the Broncos a 15-12 halftime lead.
But the Rockets, who had a 12-game winning streak snapped, were dictating the tempo and gaining confidence and they came out on a 6-0 run to start the third quarter to grab an 18-15 lead. Sophomore Sam Pryor, who led BC with a game-high 11 points, scored 4 points and fed junior Alison Colby for a basket to give the Rockets the lead, which they held until Kerstein's 3-pointer with 2:55 left in the game signaled the beginning of the end of BC's upset bid.
"Since we were in that spot last year we didn't want to give it up and play for third again," said Karlis of her team's mindset when it finally took the lead.
Trailing, the Rockets weren't able to generate anymore offense against the ratcheted-up Montini defense and had to foul on the other end. Bambule and Stone each made two free throws to put the Broncos up 32-24 with 29 seconds to go. Sophomore Shelby Holt made a layup with 13 seconds to go for BC and Karlis made two free throws for the Broncos five seconds later for the final margin.
"A lot of credit to Burlington Central," said Stone."They're young but they didn't play young. They were very calm and we couldn't rattle them at the beginning but we held it together at the end."
Pryor had 6 rebounds with Colby and sophomore Becca Gerke pulling down 5 each as the Rockets outrebounded taller Montini 28-21. Senior Sara Ross had 8 rebounds for Montini, which made just 11 of 36 shots, including 3-for-19 from 3-point range.
But 20 turnovers helped do in the Rockets, as did 10 of 32 shooting.
"That was a great game to play in and a fun game to coach," said BC coach Mark Smith. "I'm so proud of our effort. We fell a little short at the end. (Stone) made a great steal and we lost Kerstein for the 3, but we played at our pace and we dictated the tempo.
"When it was 24-21 I thought we had control of the game, but then we got stuck on 24 for a long time. I just can't say how proud I am of the effort."