The happy screams inside Vernon Hills' locker room continued once the victorious girls basketball players exited it.
"They're excited. They should be. They're in the sectional final," a wide-smiling Vernon Hills coach Paul Brettner said after his team, playing in a sectional for the first time in the program's 12-year history, defeated Carmel Catholic 46-33 in Tuesday night's second Class 3A semifinal at St. Viator in Arlington Heights.
As the Cougars celebrated on the court, several minutes passed before Sarah McHugh emerged from the losing locker room.
She, too, was smiling. It was the Carmel senior's choice after she and her teammates finished a memorable season in which they won a regional title for the first time since 2004 and fell just shy of 20 wins.
"I've had a lot of years of crying," said a tearless McHugh, who had 6 points, 10 rebounds and 6 steals in her finale. "I guess maybe it hasn't set in for me yet. I mean, this is a great team. I couldn't be happier. We got a banner, which we've been striving for all season. To me, we ended on a high note, not a low, even though we did lose. We really showed people what we could do."
While Carmel finished 18-13, Vernon Hills hiked its school-record win total to 24 and earned a berth in Thursday night's sectional final. The Cougars (24-5) will play Grayslake Central (26-5) at 7:30 p.m. back at St. Viator.
The Cougars were 4-0 when they lost to the host Rams 46-40 on Nov. 29.
"They were our first loss, and we definitely don't want them to be our last," Cougars senior point guard Abby Springer said.
Another performance like the one Springer delivered against Carmel will help Vernon Hills' chances against Grayslake Central.
Springer finished with 11 points on 4-of-9 shooting, including a 3-pointer, and also registered 6 steals, 3 assists and 3 rebounds.
"She had a great effort tonight," Brettner said of his three-year varsity player. "This is our favorite Abby Springer being a floor leader, running the show like she's supposed to, playing good 'D,' playing nearly 32 minutes but still giving effort the entire time. A great job by Abby."
Springer started the second-half scoring by cutting to the basket and finishing a high-post dish from 6-foot-2 Meri Bennett-Swanson (game-high 12 points, 9 rebounds, 5 blocks) to extend Vernon Hills' lead to 20-13. Springer's 3 had the Cougars up 34-22 with 55 seconds left in the third quarter.
"I get fueled by my team," Springer said. "Their energy gives me energy. That just kept us in the game, kept us focused and ready to go."
Vernon Hills, which never trailed, closed the opening quarter with a 6-0 run thanks in part to 2 free throws and a layup, off a Springer assist, by Brie Bahlmann (8 points) and led 10-4.
Carmel never got closer than nine points in the fourth.
"Real good defensive effort, I thought," Brettner said. "The thing I worried about was (whether) we would have poise with what Carmel did defensively. They got a few steals on us, but by and large I think we did what we were supposed to do against them. We took care of the ball."
Lauren Webb added 7 points and 5 rebounds for Vernon Hills, while Sydney Smith finished with 5 points, including a 3-pointer, and 9 rebounds.
Senior Kaitlyn Lynch tried to keep Carmel close in the second half, as she scored all of her team-high 9 points. Cassidy Kloss, who before the game advanced in the 3-point contest, added 8 points, including a 3.
"(Vernon Hills) outplayed us," Carmel coach Kelly Perz said. "Hats off to them. They had a really good game plan coming in. We had a lot of missed opportunities on offense. We're a real aggressive team on defense, and sometimes that's a detriment to us."