NORMAL – Burlington Central girls basketball players navigated another stretch of unfamiliar ground during Saturday's IHSA Class 3A third-place game.
An early deficit against Quincy Notre Dame swelled to 21 points by halftime, threatening to rattle the Rockets in the program's first state finals berth.
"It's been awhile since we've down by that much. I don't think we ever have," BC junior forward Alison Colby said. "The team stuck together and we came back out and I think we looked a little better. We finished as a team, so that's something to be proud of."
Make no mistake, Central wants to start the dialogue with its 64-40 loss to the Raiders. Four sophomores flanked Colby in the starting lineup for a team that is 54-11 in two seasons under coach Mark Smith and delivered the best finish in school history, girls or boys.
Fathoming anything other than a return to Illinois State's Redbird Arena next March isn't in the cards.
"This year, we were happy to be down here," sophomore forward Sam Pryor said, "and next year, we're going to be ready to win it."
Central (28-6) struggled with QND's pressure from the outset, with open space consistently in short supply. The Rockets went scoreless until Pryor drilled a 3 with 4:39 left in the first quarter.
That shot brought Central within a point, but hardly made the Raiders (30-4) sweat. They closed the quarter on an 18-3 run and led by as many as 26 points early in the third quarter. QND shot 25 for 56 (44.6 percent) as guard Kristen Gengenbacher (22 points) and forward Mary Beth Hugenberg (19) shined.
"We came out in this game with a lot less pressure on us," Gengenbacher said. "We were just ready to have fun and go out on a win."
QND enjoyed the same fortune the past three seasons, albeit as state champions – twice in 2A, once in 3A. Raiders coach Eric Orne said he told Smith after the game that he sees special things brewing with BC, and encouraged him to keep fostering a family atmosphere.
No problem there.
"Two years ago when I got the job, I had no idea what I was getting into in terms of how good these girls were," Smith said. "So I mean, I just feel so blessed and fortunate to be around such great kids. They play so hard. It's such a fun group to coach. A lot of togetherness and a lot of family. It's just been an awesome experience."
Smith called the Rockets' seasonlong defensive effort "out of this world." The team was at its best while creating turnovers, and that didn't change when Central came unshackled for a time in the second half. Pryor (10 points), Kayla Ross (nine) and Shelby Holt (seven) paced the attack.
The game's flow was in stark contrast to Friday's semifinal against perennial contender Montini. Central's own swarming defense frustrated the Broncos all afternoon long. BC led, 22-21, to start the fourth quarter but was outscored, 13-4, the rest of the way.
Central's student section chanted "THANK YOU, KATHLEEN!" in the closing seconds Saturday, a nod to reserve guard Kathleen Ratzek, the team's lone senior.
Colby called Ratzek "a mom" to the team, and lauded her impact as a motivational force.
If the Rockets have their way next season, their team mom will be back at Redbird, lending her support from the stands.
Central just hopes to produce a different result.