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Super victory for Vernon Hills
By Joe Aguilar | Daily Herald Staff

Vernon Hills’ Lauren Webb, right, drives on Zion-Benton’s Krystal Walker during the NSC title game Wednesday night at Zion-Benton.


Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

Vernon Hills’ Kasey Firnbach, left, drives on Zion-Benton’s TT Maggett during the NSC title game Wednesday night at Zion-Benton.


Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

Vernon Hills’ Lauren Webb pulls down a rebound during the NSC title game Wednesday night at Zion-Benton.


Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

Steve Lundy/ Vernon Hills’ Meri Bennett-Swanson, left drives on Zion-Benton’s Mia Yarbrough during the NSC title game Wednesday night at Zion-Benton.


Vernon Hills’ Sydney Smith, left, drives on Zion-Benton’s Krystal Walker during the NSC title game Wednesday night at Zion-Benton.


Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

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Published: 2/6/2013 11:44 PM

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The memory of squandering a lead that was nearly Ravens-over-Niners-sized might fade, considering the end result was super.

Then again, Vernon Hills’ girls basketball team might not want to forget what happened in the second half of Wednesday night’s North Suburban Conference championship game at Zion-Benton.

The Cougars watched a 16-point lead vanish faster than you can say Colin Kaepernick.

“It was a weird feeling to kind of have it slip for a second,” Vernon Hills center Meri Bennett-Swanson said. “But I think we showed why we can’t do that. Going forward, we can look back and say, ‘Hey, remember that Zion-Benton game when we lost it for a second and they jumped on us?’ ”

What Vernon Hills will remember is how it overcame a shaky second half to pull off a historic victory.

By edging Zion-Benton 51-50, the Cougars became the first Prairie Division team to win the NSC title game, which has been contested since 2001.

“I think it’s awesome for our division and also for our program to be the pioneers of this feat,” said Bennett-Swanson, who scored 15 points on 7-of-14 shooting and collected 5 rebounds. “It’s an amazing accomplishment.”

Lauren Webb poured in a game-high 20 points and grabbed 7 rebounds for Vernon Hills (25-2), which lost to Libertyville in last year’s conference-championship game. The Cougars had never played in the title game prior to last season.

“It’s just really good to bring it to the Prairie side once,” said coach Paul Brettner, whose team, like Lake-champ Zion-Benton (17-7), went 12-0 in its division.

Vernon Hills built a 15-6 lead after one quarter, and with Zion-Benton center Syerra Cunningham sitting on the bench with 2 fouls in the second quarter, the Cougars took advantage. They went up by as many as 17 points before settling for a 25-11 halftime advantage.

When Bennett-Swanson finished a feed from Brie Bahlmann, the Cougars led 31-15 with 5:46 left in the third. Zion-Benton then, finally, heated up. The Zee-Bees went on a 12-0 run to get within 31-27.

“I knew Cunningham would come back with a vengeance,” Brettner said. “We didn’t get a big enough lead with her on the bench.”

Cunningham, who had scored all of the Zee-Bees’ points in the first quarter, scored 3 baskets on post-up moves in the third quarter. By quarter’s end, the home team was within 37-33 after outscoring the Cougars 22-12.

“What sparked the turnaround was Coach Johnson,” Cunningham said of Z-B coach Tanya Johnson. “If you notice anything, she’s a screamer. She was on us, like, ‘We missed these box-outs.’ She said, ‘I can only coach. You guys got to play.’ It was either we listen to her scream for the next half-hour, or we go out there and play. We got turnovers. We got steals. We got buckets. Everybody was into it.”

Kaitlyn Stabenow included. The Zee-Bees guard scored 10 of her team-high 18 points, including two of her four 3-pointers, in the third quarter.

“She sparked us, too,” said Cunningham, who finished with 14 points and 11 rebounds. “She hit a couple of 3s and that just gave us (confidence) to go to the hole, get those buckets and get those free throws.”

With Vernon Hills determined to limit Cunningham, that left Stabenow open.

“They knew that we were preventing the ball from getting in to (No.) 33 (Cunningham), because she was obviously a threat,” Webb said. “They started kicking it out, and that’s when they started making a lot of their 3s. That was a big problem.”

Zion-Benton took a 45-42 lead on Stabenow’s left-corner 3 with 3:36 left in the fourth and later led 47-46. But Webb’s putback with 2:03 left snapped a 47-47 tie. Samantha Rodriguez (10 points, 4 steals) sank a clutch 3-pointer with 16 seconds left to trim Vernon Hills’ lead to 51-50.

The Cougars’ 11th turnover of the second half gave Zion-Benton one last chance, but Rodriguez’s running 3 was off-target at the buzzer.

Vernon Hills made just 5 of 15 free throws in the final quarter. Sydney Smith (8 points, 10 rebounds, 3 steals) went an uncharacteristic 1 of 7 from the line. Webb missed 4 free throws in the fourth.

“It’s nice that we missed all those free throws,” Brettner said with a smile, “just to keep the crowd interested.”