HOFFMAN ESTATES – All season, Burlington Central’s girls basketball team ran on an underclassmen brand of energy – almost too young to realize how special they were and too excited to stop and think about it.
This morning, the gravity of all the Rockets accomplished might register. Even a 39-31 loss to Vernon Hills in the IHSA Class 3A Hoffman Estates Supersectional on Monday can’t diminish a 27-5 season made possible by a cadre of young players who didn’t stop to think about whether they could be among the state’s elite.
Vernon Hills will face Montini at noon Friday at Illinois State University’s Redbird Arena in Normal in a rematch of last year’s Class 3A state title game – a game in which Central senior Camille Delacruz firmly believes this Rockets team will play during the freshmen and sophomores’ tenure.
“I’m so proud of this team,” Delacruz said. “There was so much heart on that court tonight. I did not expect to be here, but we definitely worked hard enough to get here. And we proved everyone wrong.”
If there was anyone who still saw the Rockets as an upstart team, Central quelled doubts by taking the Class 3A state runners-up point-for-point for much of the second half.
Following a methodical fourth-quarter 9-5 run during which the Rockets did not commit a turnover, Delacruz brought Rocket fans to their feet with a transition layup that knotted the score at 31 with 3:40 remaining. The momentum seemed to swing in the Rockets’ favor despite Vernon Hills standout Lauren Webb running in a bucket to give the Cougars a 33-31 advantage less than 10 seconds later.
Then, if only for a moment, the Rockets showed their youth. Central (27-5 overall) coughed up two possessions in 45 seconds and was forced to foul to stop the clock. Vernon Hills went 6 for 7 from the stripe and Central’s three attempts at answering, including two shots from behind the arc, clattered around the rim but wouldn’t drop.
“I thought in general we took some uncharacteristic shots and didn’t play the way we had been for the last two games,” Central coach Mark Smith said. “I thought we rushed it too much. We were right there, down by two, and just couldn’t get it done.”
Central had a brief lead, 5-2, on Delacruz’s 3-pointer early in the first quarter, but the Cougars used a 10-point run that capped the first and spilled into the second to go ahead 15-5 with 1:41 remaining before halftime. Delacruz hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to energize the locker room and help Central trail 17-11.
The Cougars went up by nine, 23-14, with 5:39 left in the third on a bucket from DePaul recruit Meri Bennett-Swanson, then Central used a 13-6 run to cut it to two, 29-27, with 6:09 left in the fourth.
All the Rockets needed was a little more big-game experience to help them keep their poise down the stretch.
“They remind me of us [last year] in that they don’t know that they’re young and not supposed to be here,” Vernon Hills coach Paul Brettner said. “ … In some ways I think that played to their favor tonight.”