Back from a bout with a peritonsillar abscess, as she confirmed by sharing a text message that her mother sent to her, Claire Keefe sat on Libertyville's bench in street clothes.
It was the first time the senior was back with her basketball teammates since she became so ill last week that she spent three days, including Christmas, in the hospital.
"I'm fine now," Keefe said. "I just haven't eaten yet. Once I eat, I'll be OK."
Libertyville had done better than OK without the four-year varsity starter, winning its first three games in its inaugural winter-break tournament. In Thursday afternoon's finale, however, the Wildcats played their worst game of the season, while Vernon Hills played its best.
Vernon Hills bolted to an early lead and never relented. The Cougars rolled to a 60-35 win behind Becky Bahlmann's 17 points and 15 rebounds, Katie Burrows' 13 points, Kayla Caudle's 9 points and 13 rebounds, and Emma Pappano's three 3-pointers off the bench. Vernon Hills, Libertyville and Cary-Grove all finished 3-1 and tied for the tournament championship in the six-team field.
"(It's) pretty awesome," Bahlmann said. "We had a rough start to our season (2-4 record). Coming into this tournament after a little break, I thought it would be fun to see how we would come out. The practices leading up to this were really strong."
Vernon Hills' tourney showing evened its overall record at 8-8.
"This game is the best that we've had," Cougars coach Paul Brettner said. "I said that two days ago against Conant (52-48 win) -- we held on, we hit free throws, we did all that stuff. I was real happy with this whole tournament. (Wednesday against Cary-Grove), we couldn't solve a 3-2 zone very well, and we got stagnant. (Cary-Grove) got separation, and they're tough when they get separation."
Against Libertyville (8-8), Vernon Hills scored the game's first eight points. The Wildcats answered with a 6-0 run, but Pappano's first 3-pointer had the Cougars up 11-6 after one. Burrows closed the half by converting a three-point play and swishing a 3 to beat the buzzer, increasing the Cougars' lead to 31-19, and they never cooled off in the second half.
Vernon Hills doubled up Libertyville when another 3-pointer by Pappano made it 50-25 with 2:03 left in the third.
"I think our defense was pretty solid throughout the entire game," said Bahlmann, who shot 7 of 9 from the floor and sank three 3-pointers. "We had so much support on the bench, and everyone that went on the court was playing as hard as they could."
While the Cougars shot 49 percent (22 of 45), Libertyville finished at 20 percent (11 of 55). The Wildcats made just 1 of 10 shots in the fourth.
"I think we were all just pretty tired from playing three games in a row," said Libertyville forward Caroline Frea, who had 5 points and 6 rebounds. "We did not play as a team this game. We just couldn't hit any shots. (Vernon Hills) was playing excellent, too. They hit a lot of shots."
Bahlmann and Caudle represented Vernon Hills on the all-tournament team. Frea and Riley Weis (team-high 14 points, four 3-pointers) made all-tourney for Libertyville.
Before Thursday, all of Libertyville's 7 losses were by 8 points or fewer.
"All the credit goes to Vernon Hills," Wildcats coach Greg Pedersen said. "They played a great game. They shot really well, and we didn't shoot well at all. We looked tired. We went 3-1 without Claire. If you would have told me ahead of time that we would do that, we would take that probably."