NORMAL – The Prophetstown girls basketball players were so eager to get on the court for the Class 2A state semifinals Friday night at Redbird Arena, they stepped on the floor too soon.
After they were briefly ushered back to the sideline by the officials, the horns finally sounded to start the game, and they were back out there ... and showing that desire.
An early surge gave the Prophets the lead, then a third-quarter domination all but put away their 57-48 victory over IC Catholic, earning them a berth in today's state title game against St. Thomas More.
"I'm proud of this team, and how they believed in me," Prophetstown coach Don Robinson said. "I told them that tempo can sometimes win big games, and they trusted me and each other enough to prove that."
Tempo was indeed the key, as the Prophets (31-2) used the perfect mix of patience and aggressiveness on the offensive end of the court to completely control the pace of play from the outset.
Robinson, who learned long ago that if you can't beat a team playing their pace, you must either go faster or slower, was thrilled to see his team do a little of both ... and do it very effectively, on both ends of the floor.
Offensively, it was the standard Orange Machine performance. The Prophets guards calmly moved the ball around the perimeter, sometimes finding wide-open 3-pointers, and driving the lane to create easy baskets for their post players.
"We're a very unselfish team, and sometimes we look to pass to an open teammate before we really think about shooting," senior forward Karlie Stafford said. "Even when it's 2-on-none, like in the video [they showed on the scoreboard] before the game, we're going to pass it up to a teammate if we can."
Using that well-oiled attack, the Prophets grabbed their first lead with Clare Kramer's putback of a missed free throw 5 minutes into the game. Kramer's fast-break layup ended the first quarter, then Heather Strike's 3 opened the second.
The teams traded baskets until the halfway point of the period, then Prophetstown got a 3 from Cassie Reiley, three Kramer free throws, and a Stafford layup off a brilliant save by Shelby Adams as she leaped out of bounds, to take a 26-16 lead with 1:13 left before halftime.
"It's really big for us to get that lead," said Reiley, who dished seven assists, "because then we can use our spread offense to find shooters and cutting lanes. There's more room to take the ball to the basket, and we can choose when we want to be aggressive and go after it."
IC Catholic (25-7) cut the deficit to 27-22 by halftime, but the Knights were swamped almost as soon as they came out of the locker room for the second half.
Kramer hit a turnaround jumper, then an uncontested 3 to kick-start a 16-5 scoring edge in the third quarter. Stafford added a pair of baskets in the lane, and Strike's drive-and-dish to Kramer was followed by Reiley's pass to Adams for a jumper and a 43-27 lead with 8 minutes to play.
"We didn't play well today, and the better team won," IC Catholic coach Aubree Shuett said. "We typically execute a little better than we did today, tried to do some things that were a little out of the ordinary, and that's a credit to Prophetstown."
Defensively, the Prophets were just plain stout. Most of IC Catholic's possessions were one-and-done for the first three quarters, and other than an the attacking style of Grace Vitek – she finished with 24 points and eIght rebounds – the Knights could hardly get anything going.
"I just really wanted to win this game; we all did," Vitek said. "I did everything I could to help us do that. I played well because my teammates set me up for it, but their defense was tough."
Kramer and Stafford made sure 5-foot-11 center Rory Manion never got going, and Reiley and Co. were in the back pockets of the Knight guards all night long.
"Our guards make us post players look good," said Kramer, who finished with 17 points, five rebounds and three steals. "On defense, they make it tough for the other team to get it into the post; on offense, they get the defense to collapse and leave us easy layups underneath."
Stafford added 13 points and six rebounds, and Strike finished with 11 points and four boards. Reiley had eight points to go with her game-high assist total, and Adams chipped in three points, four rebounds, two assists, two steals and two blocks.
Manion joined Vitek in double figures with 10 points, and she also had seven rebounds.
Robinson said the Prophets would enjoy this win in their first trip to state overnight, then get back to business at hand Saturday – an athletic, tall St. Thomas More team.
But one thing Robinson is sure of: his Prophets won't be intimidated by the Sabers.
"We did today what we've done all year, which is trust our teammates and play hard," Robinson said. "We're going to come back [Saturday] and do the same thing, and however it turns out, I can't express how proud of these girls I am."
Star of the game: Clare Kramer, Prophetstown, 17 points, 6 rebounds, 3 steals
Key performers: Karlie Stafford, Prophetstown, 13 points, 6 rebounds; Corrie Reiley, Prophetstown, 8 points, 7 assists; Grace Vitek, IC Catholic, 24 points, 8 rebounds, 3 steals, 2 assists
Up next: Class 2A state championship, Prophetstown vs. St. Thomas More, 8:15 p.m. today