NORMAL – Burlington Central discarded the underdog tag early in Friday’s IHSA Class 3A girls basketball state semifinal against Montini.
For the rest of the afternoon, the team making its state debut matched the one that marched to a championship three-peat earlier this decade.
Central clogged Montini’s lanes to the basket, sealed out on most rebounds and racked up its share of floor burns. When things grew especially tight, however, the Broncos harnessed their experience at Illinois State’s Redbird Arena, most recently last season’s semifinal loss.
The Rockets hope the sting of their own 34-26 defeat carries similar shelf life in coming seasons.
“Now we have the motivation to come back and beat them or whoever we face in semifinals next year. I think that was the catalyst for their speed and their pressure in the fourth quarter, and we didn’t have that,” Central junior forward Alison Colby said. “We were up for the third quarter and we were just playing to play, and they wanted it more in the end. They had to get back. They wanted revenge, basically.”
BC (28-5) will play Quincy Notre Dame for third place at 12:15 p.m. today while Montini – off to Class 4A next season – faces Joliet Catholic for the state title at 2.
The Broncos (33-2) moved into position for the later matinee tipoff time during a 38-second stretch late in the fourth quarter. Shackled by Rockets’ guard Kayla Ross for most of the day, Broncos senior and leading scorer Kateri Stone darted in for a midcourt steal and laid in her first field goal of the game to bring the Broncos within 24-23.
Lea Kerstein’s 3 after Central’s 5-second violation moments later gave Montini the lead for good with 2:54 to go. At that point, the Rockets were wrinkling under the Broncos’ full-court pressure. BC went scoreless for more than six minutes after Ross’ pair of free throws boosted Central’s lead to 24-21 with 6:18 remaining.
“We just kept playing our hardest,” Montini senior guard Kelly Karlis said, “and even though some of us weren’t at our best offensively, we told our teammates that we would really step up on defense and do what we could there, and that really helped us out.”
BC and Montini will begin a two-year home-and-home series next season in Lombard. Good luck replicating the tension of this meeting – the teams’ combined 21 for 68 (31 percent) shooting and 33 total turnovers notwithstanding.
“Overall, we played at our pace. I think we dictated the tempo,” second-year Central coach Mark Smith said. “I can’t say positively, but I’m pretty sure they thought they were going to come over here and steamroll us. And I think the exact opposite happened. We came an inch short of shocking the state. I don’t think anybody gave us a chance, and I’m just so proud of the way they played. Great determination, great focus by the girls. They really deserve a lot of credit.”
Central’s overflow student section backed the Rockets through it all. A chant of “WE READY FOR Y’ALL” greeted the Broncos moments after they broke downcourt with the opening tip. The first sounds of “I BELIEVE THAT WE WILL WIN!” came a few minutes later, when Central toted a 3-2 lead into the first official’s timeout.
Shooting struggles and turnovers marred the first half as the Rockets’ team defense helped set the tone, using a mix of size and speed to contest the Broncos’ jumpers.
“Just like today, we come out and it surprises teams,” Colby said. “They’re not ready for it. They don’t expect it.”
Both sides lamented lost chances to build bigger cushions than Montini’s 15-12 halftime edge. Several times Montini senior forward Sara Ross darted into the paint with a seemingly open lane to the basket only to find Central defenders impeding her path.
Rockets sophomore forward Sam Pryor, who had a game-high 11 points, sparked a 6-0 run in the first 1:37 that gave BC a lead and relative breathing room. At one point in the third quarter, she had enough time and space to look up and dribble one step to her right before connecting on a short jumper just inside the free throw line.
Things tightened up before long.
“Throughout the beginning of the game, I feel like we handled their pressure well. And then toward the end, I think they started to panic because the game was almost over,” Pryor said. “And then when they turned up the pressure, it was just a little too much for us.”
Colby followed Pryor with five points. Karlis led the Broncos with 10. Shelby Holt’s layup with 14 seconds left ended Central’s scoring drought.
“The sting of the loss is going to affect us for a little while,” Smith said, “but I know the resolve of this team and this family is going to rebound quickly and we’re going to finish strong [today.]”