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Montini bests Young
to win own holiday tournament

23-5 2nd half run leads to impressive 52-38 win

By Matt Le Cren

LOMBARD – Lea Kerstein is used to it by now.
 
The Montini senior understands that she and her teammates are going to get everyone’s best shot.
 
That’s what happens when you play for a program that has won six state trophies -- highlighted by four state championships -- over the past eight seasons.
 
“It’s kind of like Montini is that name everyone has wanted to go after,” Kerstein said. “The Class of 2011-2012 [which won three-straight crowns] set the example with all the state titles.
 
“Ever since then everyone has hated us. It’s because of who it is. Just the name of Montini, everyone wants to beat you.”
 
Beating Montini, while not impossible, is exceedingly difficult, especially on the Broncos’ home court.
 
So far this winter, it hasn’t been done.
 
The Broncos successfully defended their home court in impressive fashion this week by winning the 7th annual Montini Holiday Tournament, the toughest regular season tournament in the state. All but one of the 16 teams in the field came in with a winning record and most of the teams were ranked.
 
That included the top-ranked and top-seeded Broncos (16-0), who knocked off no. 2 seed Whitney Young 52-38 in Wednesday night’s title game.
 
“It’s awesome, especially coming back from last year,” Kerstein said. “We lost the last two games (at last year’s tournament).
 
“When we won [over Hersey in the semifinals] I was like, ‘Come on guys, we have to do this, we have to defend our home court. We can’t let someone take it away in front of all our own fans again.'”
 
Kerstein and fellow senior guard Tiara Wallace made sure their fans didn’t go home disappointed as they rallied the Broncos from a four-point deficit in the third quarter.
 
Montini went on a 23-5 run bridging the third and fourth quarters by doing a slow burn, patiently breaking down Young’s formidable defense with an astute passing game.
 
Wallace scored 10 of her team-high 12 points in the second half, while Kerstein tallied five of her 10 points and four of her six assists after intermission.
 
“We had to move the ball,” Kerstein said. “They’re a very good defensive team. We talked about that before, so we knew if you move off the ball you’re going to get an open shot.
 
“You got to cut behind because they extend it out more, so if you cut behind you’re going to get an open person when you fill up (the lane). That’s what we talked about at halftime.”
 
Kerstein’s two free throws gave the Broncos their largest lead, 42-27, with 5:40 left in the fourth quarter.
 
But there was still much work left to be done. Ohio State recruit Kiara Lewis, the tournament MVP, scored four points during a 9-0 run that pulled the Dolphins (10-4) within 42-36 with 2:58 to go.
 
Wallace stepped up at that point and scored five-straight points, including a three-point play, to trigger a closing 12-2 run.
 
Montini coach Jason Nichols had Wallace play point guard in the second half and that move negated Young’s ability to score off turnovers. Montini committed just one turnover in the fourth quarter and four in the second half.
 
“I was just trying to be strong with the ball,” Wallace said. “I just had to step up in that situation so I knew what my coach asked me to do.”
 
Nichols was pleased with how his team played in the second half.
 
“We got stops, we got movement in the offense,” Nichols said. “They got no ball pressure on Tiara in the backcourt. It released Claudia (Kunzer) for a little bit, and she was able to get a head of steam, and it helped (relieve the pressure). We got looks.”
 
Lewis, a senior guard, was the reason why Young was in the final. She sank two long three-pointers in the last eight seconds, including the game-winner from 27 feet  at the buzzer, in a 61-58 victory over third-seeded and defending tournament and Class 4A state champion Benet in the semifinals.
 
Against Montini, Lewis had a triple-double -- a game-high 20 points, 12 rebounds and 10 steals. That she also missed seven free throws and got little help from her teammates doomed the Dolphins.
 
Finess Dickson scored eight points, and Isabelle Spingola contributed seven points and six rebounds for Young, but the rest of the team combined for a mere three points.
 
The Broncos, in contrast, received key contributions from several sources.
 
Lindsey Jarosinski, a 6-foot-5 sophomore center, scored nine-of-her-11 points after intermission, while sophomore forward Aaliyah Patty added 10 points and seven rebounds. Senior guard Emily Cochrane chipped in six points, four rebounds and two blocks, and Kunzer finished with six rebounds and two assists.
 
All of those players would be stars on many other teams, but none racks up impressive individual statistics because Montini is loaded with talent. Eleven players have Division I offers.
 
“Individual success is not as good if you don’t have team success,” Nichols said. “You can have all the individual success you want, but if the team is not doing well, I think it’s irrelevant.
 
“Obviously you have to have individuals that play well, but a bunch of kids step up. Some days it’s one kid and some days it’s another. Kids have to understand that.
 
“They’ve got to put their egos aside and if they can, we’re going to be a good team. If they can’t, they don’t play.
 
“We have a lot of kids who buy into what we’re doing, and it’s easy to coach them.”
 
Kerstein, one of just four seniors on the roster, is one of them. The four-year varsity player, who has signed with Alabama-Birmingham, is an excellent long-range shooter but her role for Montini is to be a facilitator.
 
“I think it is,” Kerstein said. “As a senior I have to have that leadership.
 
“All of us seniors have to have that leadership to be able to do that and to set a good example for the other girls. We showed them how you have to play and when we are getting those assists for other players, we showed them that we are looking for other people before you look for yourself with those passes.”
 
Other teams have amassed the same type of talent Montini has this year but haven’t gone all the way because not everyone could subsume their ego for the good of the team. Even Kerstein, a starter, isn’t guaranteed major minutes because Nichols won’t hesitate to use whatever lineup is working best.
 
“Every underclassman goes through it where they want to play, but they have to earn their time,” Kerstein said. “The coach always says you have to earn his trust to be able to play in big games and big moments.
 
“So us older kids, we have earned that. If you haven’t showed it in practice, we showed the younger kids that you’re not just going to get that playing time. You have to earn it.”
 
Nichols is legendary for being a demanding coach, but he’s won 379 games since taking the helm at Montini in 2003-2004. The Broncos have won at least 30 games in each of the past six seasons, including a 31-6 mark last winter, when they finished third in Class 3A.
 
This season Montini, currently ranked 20th in the nation by MaxPreps, has been moved up to Class 4A and are considered a strong contender to win state.
 
The players don’t seem to mind the high expectations and relish the toughest competition.
 
“I love playing against good teams,” said Wallace, a Loyola recruit. “It’s kind of boring when you just blow teams out. When we win close games, that’s the most exciting wins. Our team loved it.”
 
Montini’s opponents, and some neutral observers, would love to see the Broncos lose. But the team embraces that.
 
“We really do,” Kerstein said. “Just knowing that people hate us that much, we can take it as a compliment because they hate us because we’re good. So it’s a good feeling.”
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