It might seem like business as usual for Montini to be going back to state.
But not for kids like Kateri Stone.
Sophomore guard Stone, one of four new Broncos starters this season, scored 11 points and two-time defending state champion Montini cruised past Crane 46-24 at Monday's Class 3A Hinsdale Central supersectional to advance to the state semifinals for the fourth time in five years.
Despite losing three kids playing Division I college basketball this year, Montini (31-5) will be back at Redbird Arena this weekend to defend its 3A title. Its opponent in a 2 p.m. state semifinal Friday will be a familiar one: Hillcrest, a 48-39 winner over Morton on Monday, who Montini beat in the last two state championship games.
Stone played all of two minutes at last year's state tournament, but is a big reason the Broncos are going back.
"I'm really proud of our team," Stone said. "Nobody thought we could it but we proved everybody wrong. I can say I'm part of it now."
Slowed by a stomach virus last week, Stone airballed her first two 3-point attempts Monday but then knocked down a pair of 3s in the final minute of the first quarter to boost Montini to a 14-4 lead.
There is a reason Stone's confidence didn't wane.
"It was my teammates. They helped me pull through it," Stone said. "They told me 'You can't stop now, we really need you.' They told me that a lot was on the line so I kept shooting."
Not that it ultimately mattered, but Montini wasn't nearly as crisp as it was in its 75-35 demolition of St. Joseph in the sectional final.
The Broncos turned it over 7 times in the first quarter the teams combined for 16 and Montini finally took the lead for good at 5-4 on Malayna Johnson's layup with 2:22 left.
Montini never looked back.
A 16-0 run spanning 7:25 was capped off by a Stone steal and basket off a Kelsey Bogdan feed for an 18-4 lead with 5:08 left in the half.
"It was weird. We lacked energy," Montini coach Jason Nichols said. "I don't know if our nerves got to us and zapped to us, but from the start that was not the pace we have been playing with. But so what, we won."
Crane (13-8), which won its first sectional championship last week, only managed 2 free throws in the second quarter and went 11:48 without a basket into the second half. It is nothing unusual for Montini's matchup zone defense, which is giving up less points per game than last year's state champs. Montini was surrendering 33.9 points per game coming into Monday's game; in five playoff games Broncos opponents have averaged just 27.6 points.
"It's because of our length," Stone said. "We're all really athletic and that helps us defensively."
Tianna Brown added 11 points, and for the second straight game Montini got a big lift off the bench from Malayna Johnson. The 6-foot-4 junior Wisconsin recruit scored 10 points with 3 rebounds and 3 blocks.
"Malayna was awesome she was so active," Nichols said. "God bless her because we need that."
Montini now sets its sights on winning its third straight state championship a feat only accomplished by 2009-2011 Bolingbrook and Teutopolis from the late 1980s. First up Friday is Hillcrest, ranked No. 1 in the final Class 3A statewide poll.
"We beat them the last two years, but not with the kids we have going down there," Nichols said. "It feels like they're going to be a bunch of wolves in the forest waiting for us for payback. But we'll go down there and compete, I promise you that."