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Vernon Hills' Meri Bennett-Swanson (center) celebrates a layup at the end of the first period against Notre Dame during their Class 3A championship match at Redbird Arena Saturday, March 2, 2013, in Normal. | Matthew Grotto~Sun-Times Media
NORMAL – A disastrous start and difficult finish doomed Vernon Hills in the championship game of the IHSA Class 3A state tournament Saturday at Redbird Arena on the campus of Illinois State University.
Quincy Notre Dame opened the game on a 15-2 run, and after Vernon Hills got within 37-33 on a pair of Lauren Webb free throws with 1:59 remaining in the third quarter, the Raiders closed on a 25-12 run to defeat the Cougars 62-45 and win their third straight state championship and first in 3A.
The loss was the second in a row for Vernon Hills (31-3) in the 3A title game after losing to Montini 56-38 in 2012.
Meri Bennett-Swanson, Vernon Hills’ 6-foot-2 senior and emotional leader, said the Cougars may have been a little flat after Friday’s big semifinal victory over Montini.
“I think we could have wanted it a little bit more (today),” she said. “Instead, we came out, ‘OK, let’s see how it is.’ We were testing the waters a little bit. We weren’t jumping on them saying, ‘Hey, this is Vernon Hills’ court.’
“They scored early on presses and things we knew were coming and we were prepared for,” she added. “But we’re a team of fighters. We have played in many more close games than they have. We were using that to our advantage the whole time.”
Vernon Hills’ junior Lauren Webb (10 rebounds) scored six of her team-high 17 points early in the third quarter, including a nice move and finish in the lane, to get the Cougars to within four points.
“We started playing like the Cougars know how,” she said. “It was just a little bit too late.”
The Cougars were still within 41-35 after three quarters, but the Raiders converted at the free-throw line in the fourth quarter to distance themselves. Quincy Notre Dame made 13-of-18 from the foul line after splitting 12 free throws through the first three quarters.
“We knew it was going to be difficult and Vernon Hills played a whale of a game,” Quincy Notre Dame coach Eric Orne said. “They’re a tremendous team. We knew we had to battle their size. We tried to get inside-outside just trying to take it right at them.”
Quincy Notre Dame’s early lead helped them weather some foul trouble by all-stater Jordan Frerichs, who played just 17 minutes.
“Vernon Hills kept coming at us and kept coming at us and we needed some space,” Orne said. “Kassidy (Gengenbacher) hit that huge three-pointer coming off the pick in the third quarter. Then we were in the bonus and able to covert some free throws late. That was probably the overall difference.”
Bennett-Swanson and Sydney Smith each had eight points for Vernon Hills. Kassidy Gengenbacher led Notre Dame with 20 points and Frerichs and Kristen Gengenbacher each had 14.
“Basketball’s a game of runs,” Bennett-Swanson said. “We were going to hit ours, I just wish we would have hit ours a little sooner and a little longer. What are you going to say? Second-place in Illinois is pretty amazing. Not a bad finish.”