Sara Ross of Montini looks for an opening to take a shot during their victory over Crane in the girls Class 3A supersectional basketball game Monday, February 27, 2012 at Hinsdale Central.
Mark Black | Staff Photographer
By Joshua Welge
Montini (31-5) vs. Hillcrest (27-3)
When, Where: 2 p.m. today at ISU's Redbird Arena, Normal.
How they got here: Montini beat Hyde Park 75-30 and King 57-17 to win the King regional, then defeated De La Salle 68-32 and St. Joseph 75-35 in the Glenbard South sectional. The Broncos then beat Crane 46-24 at the Hinsdale Central supersectional. Hillcrest beat Bremen 79-16 and Providence 79-49 to win the Providence regional, then defeated Oak Forest 61-34 and Morgan Park 70-62 at the Hillcrest sectional. The Hawks then beat Morton 48-39 in the Pontiac supersectional.
Montini's probable starters
Name Yr. Ht. Pos. PPG
Tianna Brown Sr. 6-0 F 10.3
Nikia Edom Jr. 5-6 G 9.9
Kateri Stone So. 6-0 G 9.2
Sara Ross So. 5-10 G 4.8
Kelsey Bogdan Fr. 5-10 G 2.5
Hillcrest's probable starters
Name Yr. Ht. Pos. PPG
Shannise Heady Sr. 5-11 G 14.9
Samirah Ali Sr. 5-0 G 10.3
Jahmia Phillips Sr. 6-2 C 8.6
Mariam Awoniyi Jr. 5-10 F 6.2
Jasmine Sanders Sr. 5-4 G 8.7
Scouting Montini: Montini returns to Redbird Arena for the fourth time in five years but with a very different cast of characters than the group that won the last two state championships. SIU-Edwardsville recruit Brown is the only returning starter; Edom was Montini's sixth man last year and has played some of her best basketball during the playoffs. Montini will play as many as four sophomores and three freshmen in its rotation. "I walked off the floor last year after we won it and said to our coaches, 'Next year we might not be on the floor here, we might be in the bleachers watching,'" Montini coach Jason Nichols said, "but these kids proved me wrong. A lot of them grew up in a hurry. I'm proud of them." The Broncos' matchup zone defense is allowing just 33.6 points a game better than last year's championship team and just 27.6 a game during the playoffs. Montini is 16-1 since Dec. 29, the lone loss to Class 4A favorite Whitney Young at the McDonald's Shootout. The Broncos have won 16 straight playoff games by double figures. Stone hit a team-leading 72 3-pointers this season, Edom 69. Ross and fellow sophomore Jasmine Lumpkin can be disruptive on the perimeter defensively and dynamic in an open-court game. Brown must stay out of foul trouble, finish at the basket and rebound for Montini particularly with the status of backup Malayna Johnson in question. The 6-foot-4 junior Johnson, who has averaged 8 points and 4 blocks over Montini's last two games, tweaked a knee on Monday against Crane and did not participate in a full practice Wednesday.
Scouting Hillcrest: The Hawks, No. 1 in the final Associated Press statewide poll, seek redemption after losing to Montini in the last two 3A championship games. Memories of last year burn inside fiery coach John Maniatis' crew. "Our kids have been on a mission all year with one purpose and one goal," Maniatis said, "and that is to get back here. It's been 361 days of blood, sweat and tears since that loss." This could be Hillcrest's best shot at its first state title, with four starters back from last year led by Seton Hall recruit Heady and Southern Mississippi-bound Ali. The diminutive Ali is fearless near the rim. Hillcrest is relentless on the offensive glass, with Heady, Awoniyi and Phillips all over 200 rebounds on the season. Heady, long and athletic, can be a menace at the top of Hillcrest's 1-3-1 zone trap or on the boards. "They look bigger, faster, stronger," Nichols said, "a year older and more confident. And they are probably hungrier because we have taken something from them the last two years." It is a veteran team, with eight seniors a role reversal from last year when Montini had the older group. "Experience is huge," Maniatis said. "These seniors have walked in these footprints before and know what the journey entails."
Outlook: Montini might be a year ahead of schedule, but here the Broncos are, back at state. The big question is, how will a young team react playing an ultra-motivated, older opponent on girls basketball's biggest stage? "It's a whole new ballgame," Nichols said, "but maybe that's good. We'll see." No doubt Montini must rebound well to succeed here. Hillcrest's best offense, at times, is a missed shot and hit the glass; in Montini's last loss, Whitney Young turned 21 offensive rebounds into 18 second-chance points. The Broncos' young guards also must handle the pressure and physical pounding Hillcrest will unleash. "We cannot let them beat us off the dribble, because if you do you get caught in rotation and it's harder to box people out," Nichols said, "we must keep them off the glass and we have to take away their transition game. If we can take away their transition game we can beat this team." Hillcrest loves to score, averaging 77 shot attempts over the last three years; but in the two losses to Montini, the Hawks attempted 45 and 55 shots, respectively. Without extra opportunities it is difficult to score against Montini's defense. "It will come down to valuing possessions," Maniatis said. "The last two years they have done a good job handling our press and traps and limiting our size. We have to finish at the rim." Also to keep in mind: how big a factor will the 3-point shot be? In the teams' previous two meetings, Montini has made 23 3s to Hillcrest's 8. Speaking of three, with a pair of wins this weekend Montini can join Teutopolis (1988-90) and Bolingbrook (2009-11) as only the third girls basketball team to win three straight state championships.
Springfield (29-4) vs. Vernon Hills (26-5): Springfield, which took fourth in 2009 and third the last two years with semifinal losses to Montini both times, is back behind All-State guard Zahna Medley. The Texas Christian recruit is averaging 24.9 points and 4.8 assists a game and has averaged 30.5 points a contest over the Senators' last four playoff games. Springfield has beaten five playoff opponents by an average margin of victory of 26.4 points. Vernon Hills, which won its first regional in coach Paul Brettner's 12 years two weeks ago, is making its first state tournament appearance. Leading the way are sophomores Sydney Smith, averaging 12.8 points a game, and Lauren Webb at 9.8.
Scouting Class 4A
Bartlett (31-1) vs. Whitney Young (32-0): Bartlett, making its first state appearance since taking second in 2005, gets a tall task against Young, ranked No. 2 in the country according to USA Today. Young, after its fourth state title and first since 2008, survived a classic four-overtime game with Bolingbrook Monday behind Kentucky recruit Janee Thompson's 34 points. She is one of a dynamite guard trio that also features Virginia Tech-bound Alexis Lloyd and junior Linnae Harper. Bartlett counters with an all-senior starting lineup led by Indiana recruit Haley Videckis, averaging 18.3 points a game.
Edwardsville (33-1) vs. Loyola (26-7): Edwardsville, seeking its first win at state in its fourth state appearance and first since 2007, is led by one of the top juniors in the state in 6-2 Emmonie Henderson. The Tigers, whose only loss came to Class 2A champion Quincy Notre Dame, knocked off once-beaten Marist in supersectionals. Loyola, which won the 1997 and 1998 AA titles, is perhaps the Cinderella in Normal this weekend. The Ramblers, seeded fourth in their sectional, upset top seed Maine South and Glenbrook South en route to its first state appearance since 1999.