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NORMAL -- Montini's girls basketball team picked the perfect time to play the near-perfect game.
Firing on all cylinders for virtually the entire 32 minutes, the Broncos erased last year's bad memories here Saturday with a 57-44 win over Joliet Catholic Academy in the Class 3A championship game at Redbird Arena.
The state title is Montini's fourth in the last five years and comes 371 days after the Broncos were denied a fourth straight state title by losing to Vernon Hills in the 2013 semifinals.
"These seniors have been so loyal to me," said Montini coach Jason Nichols, whose last four teams went 138-10. "It's been an incredible four-year run. When you lose one, it makes you realize how tough it is. This one is an unbelievable feeling."
After struggling with their shooting in Friday's semifinals against Burlington Central, the Broncos (34-2) regained their touch Saturday, shooting an even 50 percent. After going 3 of 19 from 3-point range Friday, they were 11 of 20 Saturday, falling one 3 short of tying the school record for 3s in a game.
"That's us," Nichols said. "When we're good, we're very good."
"We came ready to play today and our shots were falling," said Colgate-bound Montini senior Kateri Stone, who scored 12 points and hit 3 of 6 from 3-point range. "We put some pressure on ourselves (Friday), but today we were all happy. We just came to play and have fun. I feel very blessed and very humbled. It's a great way to end."
After a first-quarter chess match ended with JCA (28-3) leading 13-12, Montini took the lead for good when senior Ohio University recruit Kelly Karlis, who led the Broncos with 16 points, nailed one of her four 3-pointers just 55 seconds into the second quarter.
"We've had a great shooting team all season," said Karlis, who was 5 of 8 Saturday, including 4 of 7 from 3-point range. "We were cold (Friday), so today we just came back and kept shooting.
"This feels just great, and it definitely feels better than the first-place wins freshman and sophomore years."
The Angels hung close throughout the second quarter, but the Broncos gained the momentum they needed when junior Lea Kerstein hit one of her three 3-pointers at the halftime buzzer to give Montini a 28-23 lead at the break.
"They got some open shots and did a good job of knocking them down," said JCA coach Ed Schodrof, whose team was playing in the program's first state title game and first state final tournament since 1985.
"They answered everything we did. They shot the ball well and their defense was good. They did a really good job inside on us."
That began with holding Angels 6-foot senior Jasmine Lumpkin, the Michigan State signee who transferred to JCA from Montini after her sophomore year, to just 10 points, with only 2 of them coming in the second half.
"We did a great job on that kid today," Nichols said. "It was just defending and rebounding."
The Broncos came out on fire in the second half. Karlis hit a layup and a 3-pointer and Stone a free throw as Montini extended its lead to 34-23 with 4:53 left in the third quarter.
Joliet Catholic didn't wilt. The Angels answered with a 9-0 run to draw within 34-32 after a layup from sophomore Nicole Ekhomu with 2:16 left in the quarter. But 15 seconds later Montini freshman Kaylee Bambule took a kick-out pass from Karlis and drilled a 3-pointer that was followed by a Karlis 3 just 27 seconds later and the Broncos carried a 40-32 lead into the fourth quarter. JCA never got closer than 6 the rest of the way.
"She's a big-game player," Karlis said of Bambule. "We all just said we couldn't be nervous today, that it was just like any other game but on a bigger stage."
The quick start to the second half then weathering JCA's run made the difference to Nichols.
"The two key moments were the run to start the third quarter and then getting the last separation when got the lead back up," Nichols said. "Their defense kind of helped us. We got some comfortable shots."
That led to the Broncos being comfortable with the first-place trophy they'll bring back to Lombard.
"Last year was the hardest thing," Stone said, "but it was also kind of a good thing and we learned a lot from it. We didn't take anything for granted this year."
And in the end the Broncos got Nichols, their coach who personifies the word intense, to enjoy the moment.
"This is surreal," Stone said. "It took us five months, but we finally got him to smile."