“THIS WAS HER TEAM”

Morton’s Lady Potters 55, Bethalto Civic 41

We saw her coming as an eighth-grader, the young Katie Krupa, a precocious basketball baby, so good so young that the grown-ups told her she had to play defense with her hands behind her back. She was blocking too many shots. Also, she could not shoot the ball. She was too good at that. She had to pass so the other kids could have some fun, too.

And now she’s gone, and we won’t soon see her like again, Katie Krupa, Katie Krupa!!!

With 59 seconds to play in the Class 3A state tournament third-place game tonight, she left the court for the last time as a Lady Potter.

She wept.

Since the fourth grade, she has played basketball with Maggie Hobson, with Paige Griffin and Paige Chapin, a lifetime of teammates who finished this long, hard season with a redemptive victory at Redbird Arena tonight after losing badly this morning in a semifinal against Nazareth Academy of LaGrange Park.

Krupa went to them all, one by one, and took them all to her, one last embrace on one last basketball court, and they all were crying, and Bob Becker, her coach, embraced Krupa before the trophy presentation and said into her ear, “I love you.”

She is one of the great Lady Potters ever, and it’s good to remember what she did and what she made posssible. Her freshman year, big in the biggest games — a state championship. Second place the next year, robbed of three points by a referee’s bad call late against her in a championship game lost by a point. Robbed by Covid the third year. This season, with only Krupa back from those unforgettable seasons, who knew what could happen?

“If you had told me, we would get to the Final Four and we would win third place . . .”

Bob Becker was talking. The coach was talking to the press after tonight’s game. He began the kind of sentence that usually ends with a clause suggesting you’d be a fool to think such a thing, crazy even.

Instead, he finished the thought with “. . .it would take a lot of work.”

Actually, both thoughts are good. You’d have been certifiable to put Final Four expectations on this team. And, yes, it took a lot of work. They shared the Mid-Illini Conference championship. They won two of the state’s most difficult regionals and sectionals. They defeated a #1 seed in a super-sectional to get to the Final Four at Redbird Arena.

They did all that because Katie Krupa made it possible. The 6-foot-1 senior, a first-team all-state selection, was the team’s best scorer, rebounder, defender, passer, motivator, cheerleader, and, for all I know, its best dancer in high heels. Without her, these Potters, who finished with a 29-6 record, might have been — oh, let’s not go there. It’s enough just to listen to Becker.

“This was Katie’s team,” the coach said. “She took ownership. As great a season as she had personally, she knew she couldn’t do it alone. She had to make her teammates better, and she did that all season. This was her team.”

Tonight’s victory was yet another example of Krupa’s mastery. Coming out flat after a long afternoon’s uneasy rest — who rests well after losing a semifinal the way they did, by 31 points? — the Potters were quickly down to Bethalto, 12-2. Krupa then scored 9 of Morton’s next 14 to make it a game, the Potters down only 18-16. At halftime she had 13 and Morton led, 29-27.

The Potters’ lead after three quarters was 42-37. It moved to 48-38 on Krupa’s three straight buckets in the paint. With 3:19 to play, the Potters had won.

Krupa led Morton’s scoring with 23, Tatym Lamprecht had 19, Izzy Hutchinson 9, Ellie VanMeenen 3, and Anja Ruxlow 1.

In Krupa’s four years, the Potters went 113-13 overall (19-2 in Final Four games) or, as she put it between tears, “Oh, man. So much fun. So much success. So special. Oh, man. A million things.”

**
Here, dear reader, if you’re up to it, are some painful words about that first game..

“OH, AWESOME”

Nazareth Academy 55, Morton’s Lady Potters 24

For 11 seconds, the Potters led in this Class 3A state semifinal game at Redbird Arena. Paige Griffin’s 3-pointer near the end of the first quarter put Morton up, 13-12.

Other than that, it was a seriously terrible day for the Potters.

Before Morton could score again, Nazareth Acadamy’s Gracie Carstersen made five 3’s in two minutes and 51 seconds. Not one 3, or two 3’s, not even three 3’s, and she didn’t stop at four 3’s, either, because, suddenly, Gracie Carstersen had become Steph Curry running around screens, taking a pass, stepping back behind the NBA arc — not the high school line, not the college line, but the millionaire superstars’ line — and bubbling over in delight as the ball left her right hand en route to its inevitable destination, another dagger in the heart of Morton’s defenders who knew the scouting report on Carstersen — five 3’s in the supersectional final — and yet could not get a hand in her face today.

A man who thought he saw a Michael Jordan-esque shrug — remember that time when MJ shrugged and smiled, like, “I can’t help it, they just keep going in”? — yes, a man thought he saw that in Carstersen today and asked her about it.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I was just . . . oh . . .like, ‘Oh, awesome.'”

Those five 3’s moved Nazareth Academy to a 27-13 lead and it got worse for the Potters for another hour. The winners’ big, strong, aggressive 2-3 zone defense denied Morton any offensive rhythm. All-stater Katie Krupa scored 13 of Morton’s first 16 points and never scored again, surrounded by defenders unworried that any other Potter could score, often forced far from the paint in order to even take a pass from beleaguered ball-handlers.

Krupa’s 13 points led Morton’s scoring. Griffin, Tatym Lamprecht, and Ellie VanMeenen each had 3 and Paige Chapin 2.

Nazareth Academy, #1 ranked in 3A, moved to 33-2 for the season.

“ WHIRLWIND”

Morton’s Lady Potters 49, Marian Catholic 40

These kids, don’t they know we’re old? These basketball games of the last two weeks, they’re roller coasters slowly grinding to the top, and then…OMG!!!….we’re falling out of the sky in a rocket contraption designed to scare us into fits of screaming heebie-jeebies, sometimes known as prayers.

C’mon, already, girls, enough’s enough. Peoria 10 days ago, we’re down four. Washington four days ago, we’re down three. This is in the fourth quarter of win-or-go-home games. Tonight, we”re down again after being up by 15, we’re down in the fourth quarter again, by a point this time, and these kids, such as the freshman Ellie VanMeenen, will tell us, “It was really fun,” and the senior Maggie Hobson will speak of a “whirlwind of emotions,” and all the teenage celebrants will be right because, after taking everybody to the top of the sky, they said, “Hold on, Old Folks, not to worry, we got this.”

And 25 seconds after Marian Catholic took its fourth-quarter lead with 4:41 to play . . .. . . .

Twenty-five seconds….

In 25 seconds, what the Potters did was bring the ball up-court against Marian’s tenacious, aggressive full-court press . . . .

That took maybe 9 seconds . . .

Against Marian’s tenacious, aggressive 2-3 zone defense, let’s say point guard Izzy Hutchinson settled out front and looked for a way to get the ball to Katie Krupa above the free throw line. I’m not sure of what happened once Morton got across the mid-court line. Too much happened all night to keep track of every zig that led to what zag. And the more tenacious and aggressive Marian got on defense, the more effective the Potters got on offense. “We had to match their intensity,” Hutchinson said later.

Anyway, and I am absolutely sure of this, from her spot in the free throw circle, Katie Krupa moved the ball to Tatym Lamprecht, the little guard who was set up a step behind the arc on the left side.

Early this season, I told Bob Becker, the Potters’ coach, that I wished Lamprecht were less shy about answering questions from a man with a notebook. Becker said, “She’ll find her voice on the court this year.”

With 4:16 to play tonight, Lamprecht took Krupa’s pass, went up for a 3-pointer, and . . .

BANG!

Tatym Lamprecht’s basketball voice spoke loudly.

She gave the Potters the lead, 39-37.

“I felt confident,” Lamprecht of the 3-pointer, using her other voice, the whispering one.

The Potters had trailed, 9-7, before going on a 13-0 run that produced a 23-11 halftime lead. Once content to throw up 3-pointers over Morton’s man-to-man defense, Marian scored eight field goals in the paint to move within 34-30 entering the fourth quarter.

“I think we panicked some in that third quarter,” Becker said. Once they fell behind in the fourth, the Potters did to Marian what they did to Washington and what they did to Peoria.

“Our girls didn’t collapse,” Becker said. “They stayed positive. What we’ve been saying, ‘Stay in the moment.’ They weren’t thinking about what just happened or what was going to happen. It’s a mental toughness that they’ve had all year.”

This tough: They forced Marian into desperation shots.

This much tougher: Next time down, Krupa took another pass at the free throw line and moved it outside the right arc where Maggie Hobson took it and in that “whirlwind of emotions,” she spoke as loudly as Lamprecht had spoken a thousand heartbeats earlier . . .

BANG!

“When Tatym made hers, I got confident, too,” she said, adding brightly, “We are the Splash Sisters.”

That made it 42-37 with 2:37 to play. Then Lamprecht, fouled while getting a rebound, made two free throws at 1:51, and her sister-in-shooting, Hobson, added two more free throws to make it 46-37, with 1:12 left. Game over.

The Lady Potters will play in Class 3A’s Final Four at Redbird Arena for the sixth time in the last seven full seasons, needing two victories for the program’s fifth state championship in those seven years. Their semifinal is set for 11:45 a.m. Friday against Nazareth Academy of LaGrange, the latest #1 ranked team in 3A.

Lamprecht led Morton’s scoring with 15. Krupa had 13, VanMeenen 11, Hobson 8, and Hutchinson 2.

“ARE YOU READY TO FIGHT?”

Morton’s Lady Potters 44, Washington 38

Someone, please, take this one. Write this one. Notes, I have notes. Unreadable. Like hieroglyphics off King Tut’s tomb. Important notes have asterisks, like this ***!!***!. To earn my Milk Duds, I need tell you how the Lady Potters did it. How they did it? I have no freakin’ clue. They just did it.

I looked up with 3.9 seconds to play.

Katie Krupa, Katie Krupa!, took a seat on the bench, exhausted.

Here came Bob Becker, in a paroxysm of delight (look it up, I’m busy writing). He threw his self onto the seat next to Katie Krupa, Katie Krupa!!!

They’d done it. They’d won a sectional championship. They’d beaten their good neighbors, Washington, for the third time this season. They’d been five points down in the third quarter. They took the lead early in the fourth quarter. And with 5 minutes to play, Bob Becker crouched in front of his team during a timeout.

Five minutes to play. Up by four points.

Becker’s face was the color of his tie, flaming red.

In all-capital letters, only louder, he said to his Potters, “ARE YOU READY TO FIGHT NOW?”

Goodgawdamighty, folks, that’s called asking a question to which you know the answer, because, after using up precious Grandma-deadline minutes decoding my notes, it’s clear that the Lady Potters won this game by . . . .

Hell, I dunno how they won it.

Maybe it was a Grandma thing. When Morton’s fans seemed less lively than Joan Krupa liked, Katie’s grandmother, in the third row of the bleachers, turned to face all those fans and pumped her hands into the air, asking everyone to join her. They did. “I don’t know what got into me,” Mrs. Krupa said, happy that whatever got into her got into her.

Or maybe the Potters won it by playing unrelenting defense for 32 minutes.

Maybe by wanting loose balls more than Washington wanted loose balls.

Maybe by finding ways to score when they hadn’t scored that way all night.

Maybe by refusing to lose.

Like this: They were down 31-28 with 6:59 to play. Then came a Potters freshman Ellie VanMeenen, throwing in a 3-pointer from the right arc to tie it. A freshman! Who knew?

Thirty-seconds later, after a Washington basket, VanMeenen made another 3-pointer, this one from the left side. A freshman throwing strikes in the heat of a big moment! Who in November could see that happening in February?

A little play-by-play here to show the frantic wrestlings for possession and ways a bouncing crazy basketball can decide who wins and who loses. With Morton up 34-33 at 6:08, Washington missed a 3-pointer, Krupa rebounded it, came downcourt, missed a 3 of her own, and in the rebound frenzy, the ball squiggling away, like a greased pig at the county fair, the Potters’ Tatym Lamprecht got ahold of it long enough to earn a jump ball with the possession arrow pointing Morton’s way.

Time on the clock: 5:34. The pass in-bounds found Lamprecht on the left side and she turned all that frenzy into a beautiful rainbow of a 3 and a 37-33 lead with 5:13 to play.

Refusing to lose? VanMeenen and Lamprecht were 1-for-9 on 3’s until those moments when the game was there to be won.

When Washington committed a turnover, Morton called the timeout in which Becker asked his all-caps question to which he knew the answer was DAMN RIGHT WE’RE READY, only said teenage-girl sweetly, or even as the sophomore Izzy Hutchinson put it, “Our energy moved up to the next level, like, WHOOOOOSH.”

Lamprecht followed with another bucket earned on a I’m-not-stopping-until-I-want-to-stop drive to the hoop, putting the Potters up, 39-33, at 3:26. Washington scored quickly, but Morton — ready to fight, sir! — made it 41-35 on a Maggie Hobson put-back that was the Potters’ only rebound basket tonight. “What Coach said, we left it all out there,” Hobson said. “The best win we’ve had.”

From there it was just hang-on time, until, with 3.9 seconds to play, Becker sent in someone for Krupa to give her a moment of appreciative applause not only from Grandman Krupa but from everyone who’d ridden up I-39 in a snowstorm to see Katie Krupa, Katie Krupa!!! do Katie Krupa things.

“Katie’s been a huge part of our success in the past,” Becker said, an allusion to Krupa’s freshman and sophomore seasons (a state championship, a 37-1 season). “But this year we really asked a lot from her, She needed to LEAD this team, and she did it.”

Krupa led Morton’s scoring with 18, VanMeenen had 10, Lamprecht 9, Hutchinson 4 (and a truly astounding game defensively, handling the ball, ripping away rebounds), and Hobson 3.

Morton’s super-sectional opponent Monday nigh in Streator will be Chucago Heights Marian Catholic, now 27-8 for the season.

“ EDGE OF OUR SEATS”

Morton’s Lady Potters 59, Galesburg 35

At the Winter Olympics, we saw people throw themselves off mountain peaks with bed slats strapped to their feet. They ski straight down at 80 miles per hour until they hit a snowflake crossways and go head over tea kettle and wait for an ambulance to pick up the pieces. Also, there’s that Big Air event. Kids go DOWN A GIANT HILL sideways on one ski until they go UP A GIANT HILL and fly into the sky doing cartwheels, only sideways and upside down.

As best I could tell, anyway. It’s terrifying, worrisome, and it keeps us on the edge of our seats in a state of high anxiety.

Kinda like the Lady Potters bringing the ball up-court.

They won easily tonight, winning by 24 over a team they beat by 19 a month ago. I say “easily,” and that’s what the score suggests, but anyone paying attention knows it might have been fun to be in the Potters’ locker room at halftime to hear if their coach, Bob Becker, thought it had been done easily. Morton led at halftime, 26-20, with the last three points coming on a Katie Krupa 40-footer at the halftime buzzer.

Until Krupa’s rainbow, the Potters had been half a mess with half of the mess the result of careless ball-handling, wayward passes, and unforced turnovers that caused Becker to rise from the bench, clasp his hands on his haircut, and walk toward the exit end of the gym where one witness (me) wondered if he might return with a bag of popcorn, the better to enjoy the evening.

“Very frustrating,” Becker said. His four state champion teams were models of efficiency. This team, not so much. This team reaches double figures in turnovers most nights. And yet the Potters are now 26-5 and are two victories away from another appearance in Redbird Arena’s Final Four.

“We’re overcoming it with defense,” Becker said. “The girls are fighting through this.” A senior, Maggie Hobson, said, “When we’re playing our game –turnovers are not our game — and we keep battling, we can beat anybody.”

They showed that in the third quarter against Galesburg. They stretched the halftime lead from six points to 18 points in 6 1/2 minutes. They allowed Galesburg one field goal in the quarter and led, 45-27, going into the fourth.

“Coach gave us a pep talk at half,” Hobson said. The Potters responded with the kind of run that transforms a struggling team into a dominating team. It started with a Krupa pass producing a Tatym Lamprecht layup followed 15 seconds later by a Lamprecht breakaway created by a Hobson deflection. The freshman Ellie VanMeenen, on a streak lately, added a 3-pointer, the third of her four 3’s tonight. Suddenly, Morton led, 33-22, and Galesburg never got closer. By quarter’s end, Lamprecht had scored eight of her game-high 17 points in the period. She also had the perfect explanation for how the Potters can fix the turnover thing. “Play better,” she said.

The victory moved Morton into the LaSalle-Peru sectional championship game where Thursday night they will play Washington for the right to advance to the Streator super-sectional.

Washington, old friends from down the road. Washington, with whom they shared the Mid-Illini Conference championship. They defeated Washington twice in the regular season and now are faced with the hard thing of beating a good team three times in a season. And Washington comes in off the thrill of tonight’s upset 61-51 victory over Geneseo, Class 3A’s #1 ranked team most of the year.

Lamprecht’ s 17 led Morton’s scoring. VanMeenen had 12, Krupa 11, Hobson 9, Anja Ruxlow 6, Izzy Hutchinson 2, Paige Griffin 2.

“A DREAM”

Morton’s Lady Potters 31, Peoria High 27

Where were you when it was 27-all with 18.5 seconds to play?

A time like that, do you remember to breathe? A time like that, win or lose, where are you?

Win, you’re a regional champion for the seventh straight season and you’re headed to a sectional next week, still alive on the snowy road to Redbird Arena and a chance for a fifth state championship.

Lose, the season’s over. So where are you when it matters most?

Tatym Lamprecht had the ball in her hands at the free throw line.

To hear her tell it, though, the Lady Potters junior was not in the Peoria High gym with everyone else.

She was alone at the line in the Potterdome.

“I knew I’d make them,” she said. And here, in capital letters, she said again, “I KNEW.”

How did she know?

“I imagined I was at practice.”

Swish the first, swish the second, and seven seconds later, 11 second to play, there she was again at the free throw line. Swish one, swish two. And the Potters had beaten Class 3A’s #3-ranked team on its own court.

Jubilation, celebration, and other teenage frenzies ensued, so much so, and I promise you I have not seen this before, not even in the four seasons that his team won state championships — but, I aver, testify and swear up and down that Bob Becker, the Potters’ coach, took hold of the regional championship plaque, raised it high over his players’ heads, and then he, a Hall of Fame coach in his 23d season, began bouncing up and down as if suddenly 17 and at Sycamore High again.

Don’t you love when that happens?

“Incredible,” Katie Krupa said.

“Funnest game ever,” Maggie Hobson said.

“Ugliest, prettiest game ever,” Becker said. “Fifteen turnovers the first half and we were up by 10. These kids have been so resilient all season, through injuries, finding a way, making a way. Tonight, going from 10 up to 4 down and coming back at the end. Beating the No. 3 team in the state that had been No. 1, that had beaten us here six weeks ago.” Here, with beads of water shining on his suit coat (“Yeah, got me in the shower”), Becker remembered to stop talking in order to breathe. Now, going on: “These kids, so gritty, just such toughness.”

What a game it was, and I took hundreds of notes on how Morton led after a quarter, 5-2, at halftime, 16-6, and 21-17 after three quarters. But I’m skipping past those notes to the point in the last quarter when Peoria High finished a 13-0 run in 5 1/2 minutes to take a 25-21 lead.

From there, once up by 10 and now down by 4, the Lady Potters showed who mattered when it mattered most.

It went like this:

Hobson two throws to close the gap to two points.

Next time down, freshman Ellie VanMeenen made a 3-pointer from the right edge of the arc. Her third 3 of the game, Morton’s only 3’s. About that game-turning 3, she said, “I was nervous at first, but as soon as the game went on, I wasn’t nervous anymore.” As VanMeenen spoke, Krupa bumped her on the shoulder and said, “HUGE 3!”

A Krupa free throw made it 27-25 before Peoria got it to 27-all with :39.3 seconds to play.

Then it was Lamprecht, controlling the ball against Peoria’s aggressive press, drawing back-to-back fouls for the game’s last four points.

I could go on about Lamprecht a bit. And I will. Twice she blocked Peoria shots in the paint, not the kind of work a 5-foot-7 guard usually gets done, and she had a perfect explanation.

“Adrenaline,” she said.

Because Lamprecht had played two seasons at East Peoria, where the Raiders seldom won games, before transferring to Morton, where she has been an integral part of a regional championship team that now is 26-5, there was the inevitable question of what this season has been like for her.

“A dream,” she said.

Krupa led Morton’s scoring with 11 of her hardest-ever points, all while being double- and triple-teamed. VanMeenen and Lamprecht each had 9, Hobson 2.

“WARRIORS”

Morton’s Lady Potters 47, Richwoods 34

Afterwards, Katie Krupa sat there in a hazy daze of exhaustion, happiness, and pain literally from the top of her head to her ankle.

No wonder she couldn’t make out what I said.

I said it again. “You were heroic.”

She smiled, kind of, a tiny smile, puzzled.

So I spelled it. “H-E-R-O-I-C.”

It’s not that she scored 21 of the Potters’ 47 points. It’s not that she got every freaking rebound when nothing less would do. It’s not that she blocked shots. It’s not that she brought the ball up against Richwoods’ hacking, whacking, scratching, clawing press.

It’s that she did most all of that after she collapsed on the floor not once, not twice, but three times, first after a collision caused an upper leg cramp, second after she rolled an ankle, and third after cracking her skull into a Richwoods nose.

We’ve seen NFL players with leg cramps. From out of nowhere, three or four trainers sprint onto the field. They surround the guy. They minister to his pain. Tonight, when Katie Krupa went down after that collision, here’s what happened. Nothing. Nobody came running to her. Play went on until a referee noticed Krupa writhing in pain. Then Krupa got up and limped to the bench. There, ministering to herself, she bent her leg up to her shoulder, made a fist and started pounding on that cramp, trembling as she did it. And she said something to the Potters’ coach, Bob Becker. “She told me,” he said later, “she wasn’t coming out.”

At that point, early in the fourth quarter, Morton’s lead was 35-28. The issue was in doubt. The season was in doubt. Lose this regional semifinal, the season’s over. Richwoods had trailed by as many as 12 but had closed the gap with a strong third quarter. At 35-28, it would not be good for the Potters to have Katie Krupa on the bench.

After a timeout, Krupa limped onto the court. Four seconds later, at the free throw line extended, she took an in-bounds pass from Izzy Hutchinson and immediately returned the ball to Hutchinson under the hoop for an uncontested layup.

It was two minutes later when Krupa rolled that left ankle and went down again. This time she left the game — for all of 17 seconds. And on return this time, with the Potters’ lead cut to 37-31, Krupa did the brightest thing that only the brightest of stars does. She called timeout. Sounds easy, eh? But do it from the far side of the court. Do it when a teammate, Maggie Hobson, has gained possession with a steal and is about to be tied up. Do it when Becker hasn’t done it. Do it when Hobson was too busy to do it. And when a referee called timeout, he thought the ask for a timeout was so extraordinary that he explained to the official scorekeeper, “Thirty-one called it,” and he said it agan, “Thirty-one,” which is Katie Krupa’s number and there she was, in the far left corner, 40 feet behind Hobson wrestling for possession.

I’m making a lot of that timeout call because, when Becker says of his team, “They made a way, they found a way,” one of the ways they made and/or found was that timeout. It gave Morton the ball. And a minute later, Hobson scored on a layup. Twenty seconds after that, Krupa made a mid-court steal that led to two Tatym Lamprecht free throws and a 10-point lead with 1:46 to play.

Game over.

Almost over, anyway, except for Krupa’s head-on collision — “THAT hurt,” she said later — that left a Richwoods’ player bleeding from the nose and Krupa sitting on the court pressing a hand against the top of her head, as if she could keep an egg from popping up there.

“It was really two different games,” she said. “The first half, the referees were calling everything, so we were attacking and getting fouls.” She scored 17 points in that half, seven on free throws. “Then the second half, they let everything go. It got really physical.”

Physical? Brutal’s more like it. Ugly. Morton took advantage of it. The Potters made 21 free throws, Richwoods 3.

“We showed a lot of toughness, they’re all warriors,” Becker said. “Everybody in our locker room wanted this one to get to Thursday night.”

Thursday night, Morton (now 24-5 for the season) will play Class 3A’s No. 1-ranked team, Peoria High (25-3), for the regional championship and a spot in the LaSalle-Peru sectional next week. A month ago, Peoria beat the Potters, 41-32.

Krupa’s 21 points led Morton tonight. Lamaprecht had 11, Hobson 6, Hutchinson 5, Paige Griffin 2, Paige Chapin 2.

“We Can Win the Regional”

Normal Community 58, Morton’s Lady Potters 49

Ten minutes after this one, the Potters’ coach, Bob Becker, was thinking 12 days ahead.

“I believe we can win the regional,” he said. “We can find a way to beat Central on their home floor.”

Let’s play this out. First presume that Morton beats Richwoods in its regional opener on Feb. 14. Then, three days later, say the Potters find a way to beat Peoria Central at Peoria Central (though last month they lost to Peoria Central at Peoria Central by nine points). A victory over #1 seed Peoria Central would give Morton the regional championship and establish the Potters as favorites to win the LaSalle-Peru sectional and move on to the supersectional at Romeoville where a victory would send them to Redbird Arena as one of the last four teams standing.

Yes, yes, oh my yes, I know, forgive me, that last sentence there is one gigantic pot of supposin’, let’s-sayin’; and wishin’ upon a star.

But, look. Remember when America’s darling, Julia Roberts, lost her mind for a minute and married the weird-haired country singer Lyle Lovett? Since then, I have believed that ANYTHING can happen.

So there is that. And Becker saw enough good in today’s defeat to say, “I don’t believe in ‘moral victories,’ but I said to the team afterward, ‘Why would we play them?'”

The game against Normal Community was a last-minute improvisation when both Normal and Morton lost scheduled opponents and scrambled for a game that would help prepare them for the post-season. Morton might have searched for a cupcake victory; instead, Becker wanted a test.

“We played them because they’re a good team, they’re a 4A state-ranked team,” he said. The Lady Iron would be a real test, a team with a 20-6 record in the state’s highest level of competition. It’s also a team good enough to have Peoria Central beaten, only to lose by a point when it missed on the front end of a one-and-bonus with 1.3 seconds to play. That was a week ago.

“And after their terrific start today,” Becker said, “we won the last three quarters.”

Seventeen seconds into the second quarter, Normal Community had made seven 3-pointers, one a minute after they made their first one. (They made only two more all day.) At that point, they led, 24-13. Becker’s silver-lining math, then, was correct. From there on, Morton outscored the winners, 36-34.

In fact, from that 11-point deficit Morton found a way to get the lead at 36-35 midway through the third quarter. The Potters did it with a 10-0 run achieved in a minute and a half. Katie Krupa started it at 4:04 with four straight free throws earned on shooting fouls. Tatym Lamprecht and Ellie VanMeenen followed with a pair of 3’s from the left side to give Morton the lead at 2:34 of the third quarter.

Normal Community took the lead back immediately, never again trailing. It sealed the victory with six straight points when Morton’s offense — fitful at best on a day of turnovers galore — went totally silent from 5:30 of the fourth to 1:37. As Morton has done to so many teams in the last seven years, Normal Community closed the deal with a ball-control offense that produced eight free throws in the last minute.

“We just gifted them points at the end,” Becker said. “Gifted them! That CANNOT happen.”

In those last 5 1/2 minutes, profiting from Morton’s failures, Normal Community outscored the Potters,14-7.

Krupa led Morton’s scoring with 16, VanMeenen had 14, Maggie Hobson 11, Izzy Hutchinson 5, and Lamprecht 3.

Now 22-5, the Potters close their regular season Tuesday at the Potterdome with a Mid-Illini Conference game against Limestone. Victory would give the Potters a share of their seventh straight Mid-Illini championship. The Peoria regional starts the next Tuesday.

“FaceTime for Graci”

Morton’s Lady Potters 50, Pekin 35

In this OUCH-iest of Lady Potters seasons, four injured players were in their warmups on the bench for Pink Night tonight. Paige Griffin and Addy Engel, both of whom had been in the team’s starting lineup, are out for the season. And now we see Maria Lopko and Magda Lopko sidelined as well. The list of injuries includes broken bones, a stress fracture, sprained shoulder, and a lower vertebra inflammation.

And where, pray tell, was Graci Junis?

In her hospital room.

Because there was more than enough snow to go sledding, the Lady Potters organized a play day Wednesday in the hills of Morton’s Northwoods Park. Too soon, the play day became a bad day. Junis ran her sled into a tree and suffered internal injuries. A 911 call brought paramedics to the park. They carried Junis to a Peoria hospital where she was in intensive care today.

A starter as a freshman and a top reserve of late, Junis came to the Potterdome tonight but only by the magic of FaceTime.

“Graci wanted to be included in the pre-game talk,” senior Maggie Hobson said.

So the Potters dialed her up for coach Bob Becker’s talk before sending them out against Pekin. If Becker’s mission tonight was to fire ’em up and forget Saturday’s last-second loss to Metamora, the Potters can say mission accomplished.

“We bounced back from a really tough loss,” Katie Krupa said. The senior all-stater, tonight’s leading scorer with 19 points, might have been echoing Becker’s post-game talk. He said, “Teams with a good pedigree will bounce back. The girls responded tonight.”

Pekin is a second-division Mid-Illini team that lost to the Potters at home a month ago, 55-35. Tonight was not much different as the Potters went on an 25-8 run to move from 9-7 down in the first quarter to a 32-17 lead early in the third. The run included the kind of offense the Potters need consistently. They got four 3-pointers, two by Ellie VanMeenen, one each by Hobson and Tatym Lamprecht. And Krupa not only dominated in the paint, she also added a 14-footer to show no one can give her that shot for free. Defensively, the Potters were so good that Pekin’s only real offense was to back up, to back way way up, and hurl a prayer skyward. Of their 12 field goals, nine were 3-pointers, and my guess is they put up at least 9 airballs from out there and were 9-for-35 or worse overall.

Now the Potters are 22-4 for the season and 11-2 in the Mid-Illini. By beating Limestone in the Potterdome next Tuesday, they can claim at least a share of their seventh straight regular-season conference championship. (I’m saying the Covid-abbreviated 2020-21 season didn’t happen.)

Saturday, in a change of schedule, the Potters play at Normal Community at 2:30. The Lady Iron are 20-6 overall, with a victory at Washington and a one-point loss to Peoria Central. A good test for the Potters before beginning regional play in 10 days (opening against Richwoods with that winner most likely playing Peoria High in the regional final).

After Krupa’s 19 tonight came Lamprecht with 15 (including two rebound buckets). Hobson had 6, VanMeenen 5, Paige Chapin 3, and Lydia Rogers 2.

Best of all on this Pink Night, through their fund-raising efforts, the Lady Potters were able to write a check for $22,000 to the Illinois Cancer Care Foundation.

“Hail #4! Hail #13!”

Hail #4! Hail #13!

Metamora 38, Morton’s Lady Potters 35

So much to like about tonight, Chandler Ryan in the house, Brandi Bisping embracing her, the two icons sitting at midcourt, feeling applause sent down on them when they took their places in Potters history.

No one will wear Ryan’s #4 again, and no one will wear Bisping’s #13 again. Their numbers are not officially retired. The official language says their “jerseys” are retired, as if old and tattered, sent to the laundry, never to be seen again. Still, before tonight’s ceremony, the Potters’ coach, Bob Becker, said he would never again order a #4 or a #13 (that #13 is now doubly retired, first worn by Brandi’s sister, Brooke). And it’s good we’ll never see those numbers again, because #4 and #13 were the heart and soul of four state championship teams. They should stand alone, undiminished.

Ryan came up from her home in Florida, Bisping came down from Milwaukee, both graduates of Division 1 basketball programs, and it was wonderful to see them both, young and happy, in the Potterdome bleachers tonight.

Too bad they couldn’t un-retire their jerseys for an hour or so.

As efficient as the Potters were two nights earlier in an 18-point victory over Washington, they were careless at both ends tonight.

“What’d we have, 20 turnovers?” Becker said. “Every time they gave us a chance, we threw it away.” He spoke of the game in its entirety, but those words fit perfectly the Potters’ third-quarter play. Hard to believe, but the Potters scored only 5 points in the first quarter and 6 in the second to fall behind, 20-11. Maybe Metamora’s defense was that good. Could have been. Still, of Morton’s 20 (or more?) turnovers, too many were unforced, the result of poor ballhandling.

But that third quarter — Metamora’s worst. It had one field goal the first 6 1/2 minutes. And yet it maintained that nine-point halftime lead, going into the fourth quarter up 29-20.

Only then did Morton make a run. Down 35-28 with 4:29 to play, the Potters scored the game’s next seven points for a 35-all tie.

They did it this way: Ellie VanMeenen made a 3-pointer from the left corner at 4:09. At 2:39, Katie Krupa scored down low off a great Tatym Lamprecht pass. In the last minute, the Potters had a chance to take the lead. First, down 35-33, Izzy Hutchinson made a steal at mid-court with 1:20 left. On that possession, Morton somehow won two scrambles for offensive rebounds and moved the ball to Krupa at the free throw line. Her 17-footer tied the game with 37 seconds to play. Until that point, Metamora had led all the way.

Unfortunately, Morton never touched the ball again.

Holding for one shot, Metamora was able to avoid being sent to the free throw line. Just as important, it was also able to control time by calling two timeouts, the first with 23 seconds left, the second with 11.8 seconds on the clock.

Out of the second timeout, Metamora worked the ball into the paint and to the deep left corner where Alyssa Russell was unguarded.

“I felt confident the whole game,” Russell said later. “It was designed to go to the post, and she kicked it out to me. It was a good shot.”

She made the 3-pointer with :03 showing on the clock.

Morton was given a timeout at :01.4, meaning that perhaps a second was lost in the frenzy. The Potters then failed to connect on a long in-bounds pass and time expired.

The defeat left the Mid-Illini Conference race up for grabs with a week to play. Morton is 21-4 overall and 10-2 in the league with both losses to Metamora, 19-3, 8-2. Washington is 19-4, 9-2.

Krupa led Morton’s scoring with 15. Izzy Hutchinson had 9, VanMeenen 5, Lamprecht 3, Maggie Hobson 3.

“The TRUTH”

Morton’s Lady Potters 46, Washington 28

Izzy Hutchinson did not score. She was a star.

Ellie VanMeenen scored twice. She was a star.

Maggie Hobson, star.

Tatym Lamprecht, star.

Katie Krupa Katie Krupa!, star.

Graci Junis, off the bench, star.

At the Potterdome tonight, they were all stars in a game for undisputed first place in the Mid-Illini Conference.

Izzy Hutchinson’s in-your-face defense against Washington’s best scorer baffled that girl, who once put up a 3 that hit the top edge of the board and, for the night, scored 7 points, none in the decisive last 15 minutes. . . . freshman Ellie VanMeenen’s two buckets were 3-pointers and six of Morton’s 14 points in the first half. . . . Maggie Hobson and Tatym Lamprecht — the Potters’ “Splash Sisters,” only with ponytails — made five 3-pointers in the second half and 25 of 34 second-half points . . . Graci Junis did a reserve’s dirty work of rebounding and defense when it must be done. . . .and Katie Krupa, besides presenting a constant offensive threat (13 points), blocked so many shots that a Washington star went up for a 3-point shot and, once up there, saw Krupa closing on her, and decided, “#$%&,” (or however a teenage girl might express excruciating dismay) and came down without the ball ever leaving her trembling hand. Traveling. It happened with two minutes and 10 seconds to play and Morton up 42-25.

It was Washington’s ultimate concession of embarrassing defeat. It was also the Potters’ declaration that they expect good things to come.

“One of the funnest games I’ve ever played,” Hobson said. “It’s only up from here.”

“So fun,” Lamprecht said. “The best we’ve been all year.”

“One hundred percent TEAM,” Krupa said..

“We played our tail off from beginning to end,” the coach, Bob Becker, said. “Everybody was locked on completely. We are on an upswing.”

Coaches like to talk up “team” victories. They’ll say, sure, the STAR scored a bajillion but, hey, don’t forget the moms’ bang-up job on laundry this week. Tonight, trust me, the Lady Potters created a spectacular TEAM victory. Washington came in with a 19-4 record and had lost to the Potters by a point five weeks ago.

Morton’s defense was sensational, proactive, aggressive, smart. For a half, that seemed that might be enough to win. In the first quarter alone, the Potters’ defense left Washington with nowhere to go. The visitors made four turnovers, put up three airballs, had a 3-pointer blocked, and one poor girl twisted herself into such a pretzel as to throw a shot UP into the net.

Still, the Potters won this one when their offense did what their offense can do — strike quickly and often.

The first strike came from Tatym Lamprecht. The junior guard scored 11 points in five minutes of the third quarter to move Morton from a 14-10 lead to 25-16. She did it with 3 from the left corner, a driving floater high off the board, and two more 3’s — done 18 seconds apart. “When I make 1 or 2, I feel really good,” she said.

Then it was Maggie Hobson’s turn. The senior guard’s successive 3’s only 35 seconds apart opened the lead to 38-23. (Add it up. Four of the Hobson-Lamprecht 3’s came in a total of 53 seconds.)

“I told you,” Krupa said, telling us again, “when defenses come on me, we can get it to Maggie and Tatym.”

The victory raised Morton’s overall record to 21-3 and moved it at 10-1 past Washington and Metamora into first place in the Mid-Illini. Washington is now 9-2 in the league, and Metamora, upset tonight by Dunlap, is also 9-2. Metamora will be Morton’s next opponent, Saturday night in the Potterdome.

Hobson led Morton’s scoring tonight with 14. Krupa and Lamprecht had 13 each. VanMeenen had the other 6.

“Beastly”

Morton’s Lady Potters 61, Canton 39

Everything Katie Krupa did tonight was done beautifully, even the knocked-on-her-butt things, or maybe especially those things, for what she did a couple dozen times was get up and say, like, “Is that all ya got?”

She took it to the rim. She scored off the glass from a foot and from three feet. She scored on the run with either hand. She stepped back from the crowd once and scored from 17 feet. She scored when fouled and she scored when no one could match her speed in the paint. She scored from everywhere except the popcorn stand and that’s only because she didn’t want any popcorn. Tonight she was beastly beautiful.

Career high 29 points, and she played a minute in the fourth quarter.

Free throws, 13 for 13, which makes 29 for 30 in the last three games, 35 for 36 going back to a fourth game.

Rebounds, all of ’em that mattered.

“Katie’s being double- and triple-teamed,” her coach, Bob Becker, said, “and she’s even scoring on those.”

As Becker spoke, we stood on the Canton court maybe 50 feet from the Potters’ locker room.

“The kids are having fun now,” he said. “Hear ’em in there?”

Sounded like (from what movies have taught me) a slumber party gone raucous…..

And why not? They’re now 20-3, they’re 9-1 in the Mid-Illini, they’ve lost to a very good Peoria High team and proved resilient enough a week later to win two hard games in the Galesburg tournament against 17-victory teams and tonight bounce along Route 24 to Canton and bounce the Little Giants to sleep.

Besides all that, their coach, Becker, famously hard to please as all Hall of Fame coaches are hard to please, was pleased on the way to being seriously pleased and smilingly delighted.

“I like where we are,” he said. “The kids played really hard tonight. We’re going in the right direction with a big week coming up.” Thursday the Potters play Metamora, the only Mid-Illini team to beat them this season. Saturday, they play Washington. Mid-Illini games don’t get bigger than those.

In a minute here, we’ll get back to Katie Krupa Katie Krupa! But first, let me say my favorite moment of the night did not involve her at all.

It went like this. Graci Junis wanted the damned ball and a Canton girl made the mistake of thinking she could win a wrestling match against Junis. Nope. Junis ripped the ball away and the two of them went ker-lumph at the Canton end. That started a pile-up in the paint, for here came the Potters’ Izzy Hutchinson throwing herself on top of the Junis/Canton heap. What a kerfuffle it was (whatever a kerfuffle is) and it caused the basketball to squirt sideways a couple feet and here came Maggie Hobson speeding into the wreckage on a white horse (really) to scoop up the ball and head up a stampede toward the Morton end where . . .

(Pausing for breath.)

. . . she skidded to a halt at the free throw line extended and dropped a pass to Tatym Lamprecht, who’d caught a taxi down the right side (I think) and went up for one of her pretty-as-a-rainbow 3-pointers that . . .

(Of course.)

… BANG!

And the Potters’ lead, 18-16 a minute earlier, was on a fast track to 37-21. Turn out the lights, Canton, party’s over.

Anyway, when Katie Krupa Katie Krupa! came out of the locker room, I asked her where she hurt, for surely she hurt in multiple locations, having been double- and triple-hammered all night long.

“What do you mean, ‘hurt’?’ she said.

Of course she said that.

“I’m good,” she said.

She’d been struck above the right eye by a Canton body part, an elbow maybe. She’d been hurled onto her back and shoved down against a goal support. She’d been upside-down and right-side up and the most she’d say about all that is that, well, yeah, her neck did kinda hurt, but for nothing Canton did.

“Coach got kind of excited, I guess,” she said, and when she came out of the game for good, Becker thought to praise her with a coach’s slap of appreciation that turned her head on its swivel. She laughed. “I don’t think he realized how strong he is.”

Like Becker, Katie Krupa Katie Krupa! is feeling good about the way the Potters are playing.

“If I can’t get to the basket,” she said, the double- and triple-teaming tactics give her chances to make passes. “We’ve got great shooters in Maggie and Tatym, and great attackers in Izzy and Ellie (VanMeenen). It’s a big week coming up, and we’re ready.”

Her 29 points led Morton’s scoring tonight. Hobson had 10, Lamprecht 9, Anja Ruxlow 5, Hutchinson 4, Junis 2, Emilia Miller 2.

“READY?????”

Morton’s Lady Potters 54, Lincoln 45

The Potters 54 again, Galesburg 33

Who knows what this means in the long run, and who really cares, because what it means right now is that these Lady Potters can beat anybody at any time.

“A turning point,” Katie Krupa called it, and if Katie Krupa wants to call it a turning point, who are we to argue?

“The post-season is going to be crazy,” she said, and if it’s crazy she sees coming, bring on crazy.

Right now, what Katie Krupa wants, Katie Krupa gets.

“She dominated,” Bob Becker said, and in case the hard of hearing didn’t catch the drift, the Potters’ coach went to upper-case letters with an exclamation point, “She was DOMINANT!”

Let’s ride the way-back machine to January 24, 2015, a time before the Lady Potters had won one state championship, let alone four. They were just another really good team when they came to Galesburg for their two-games-in-a-day part of the Galesburg High School’s annual Winter Classic tournament.

That day became a turning point. Yes, the same words we heard from Katie Krupa today. Already pretty sure of themselves, the Potters that day, led by Chandler Ryan and Brandi Bisping, won easily against two legendary Illinois powers, Quincy Notre Dame and Galesburg. They won each game by 16 points — about what the Potters did today in beating good Lincoln and Galesburg teams by 9 and 19. They’re now 19-3 with six regular season games left before “crazy” begins.

After those games seven years ago, the endearingly-confident-an-inch-away-from-unbearably-cocky Chandler Ryan predicted a state championship.

“We’re winning the rest of our games,” she said.

“That’d make you 33-3,” I said. “I’m writing it down.”

Ryan said, “Good.”

That turning-point day in 2015 was extraordinary for Ryan’s prediction but became nearly unbelievable for what Brandi Bisping did. Of all of Bisping’s sensational work in leading the Potters to the 2015 state championship (and the ’16 and ’17), she was never better than on that day. She scored 27 in the first game, 29 in the second. She made 15-of-18 field goal tries and 19 of 20 free throws. (Yes, 38 shots taken, 34 made.)

I never expected to see anything like it again.

And then today came Katie Krupa. The 6-foot-1 senior all-stater scored 52 points, 24 in the first game, 28 in the second. She was 16 for 17 at the free throw line. I didn’t keep track of her field goal attempts, but when she scored the Potters’ first 14 points against Galesburg, her five field goals came at point-blank range, low in the paint, right where Becker wanted them. In fact, when Krupa missed a couple in there, even with a 17-6 lead late in the first quarter, Becker chose to remind his star she shouldn’t do that. He sent in a reserve and left a seat open near him for Krupa. “That’s what a bench is for,” the coach said.

She sat there a minute or two.

Then the quarter ended, and about 30 seconds into the second quarter, Becker turned to face Krupa and said, in the way coaches say things to which they want a positive response, “READY?” His tone suggested three or four ????s at the end of that not-really-a-question-but-an-order.

Well, of course, she was ready, for she’d been ready all day on a day when she made sure the Potters would trail one time and one time only and that time for only 25 seconds, behind Lincoln, 13-11. In Krupa’s first two minutes back against Galesburg, she scored four points in a 10-point run that left Galesburg forever behind, 32-14.

“Maybe she’d individually ‘settled’ by then,” Becker said of his wake-up call. “But she can be dominant and that’s what we need, to just keep pounding away inside with her.”

Krupa said, “Coach was pushing me because he didn’t want me settling. Everybody was doing a great job of getting the ball in to me, and I had to take it to the rim or draw a foul and get to the line.”

Wait. One more thing. Guess what happens next Saturday night at the Potterdome?

Remember how today’s game reminded us of that game seven years ago?

Saturday night, the Potters will retire the jerseys of Chandler Ryan and Brandi Bisping.

Lord, how time flies when you’re having fun.

Morton’s scoring today against Lincoln: Krupa 24, Tatym Lamprecht 14, Maggie Hobson 10, Izzy Hutchinson 6.

Against Galesburg: Krupa 28, Hobson 11, Hutchinson 7, Ellie VanMeenen 6, Magda Lopko 2.

“ Flying!”

Morton’s Lady Potters 57, East Peoria 15

With just over a minute left in the first half, here came Graci Junis to wake me up.

Not that I was dozing off or anything, but the score was 24-7 on its way to whatever Morton wanted it to be.

Junis is a 5-foot-8 sophomore, a star on the school’s regional-champion volleyball team this season. I know nothing about volleyball. I didn’t need to know much to like what I saw of Junis in the Potters’ sectional volleyball loss to Washington. I saw a good jumper who was quick and aggressive at the net. Those strengths suggested she’d be an important basketball player this season. She was, after all, a starter in the Covid-abbreviated 2020-21 season.

“I just lost it somehow after volleyball,” she said tonight, mystified that she’d become a reserve playing mostly on the jayvee team. She said coach Bob Becker and his assistant, Dakota Neisen, “sat me down and said, ‘You got it in you, Graci,’ and talked about ‘competitive fire.'”

So here’s a happy note I made late in the second quarter tonight . . .

“Graci RE 1:25 !!! flying in from left and up with it”

And two possessions later . . .

“Graci again RE at buzzer”

The Potters, coming off a hard loss to Peoria High last weekend, could not have expected to prove much tonight. They’re now 17-3 for the season and lead the Mid-Illini Conference at 8-1. East Peoria is 1-17, 0-8.

Bob Becker came out of his team’s locker room smiling. “Happy to be back in the Potterdome,” he said.

His team had not played at home since Dec. 11. Eleven straight road games, three of them losses.

The coach then said, “The first half, we really got on the offensive glass — Graci came flying! It was fun to see her playing like that. She just had to find her competitive fire. We talked to her about it, and tonight she cut loose.”

Morton scored the game’s first 13 points and led after a quarter, 21-5. It was 31-7 at the half, 49-13 after three, and then came the merciful running clock.

The breather precedes what promises to be a testing Saturday in Galesburg. As part of Galesburg High’s annual Winter Classic, the Potters play Lincoln at 1:30 and Galesburg at 6.

Katie Krupa led Morton’s scoring tonight with 14. Tatym Lamprecht (two 3’s) and Ellie VanMeenen (three 3’s) had 12 points each. Izzy Hutchinson scored 5, Paige Chapin and Junis 4 each, Maggie Hobson and Emilia Miller 3 each. (Paige Griffin, the starting point guard all season, suffered two fractures in her right wrist at Peoria High and will not play again. Addy Engel, also a starter, remains out with a back injury; her return is uncertain.)

“Freaked Out”

Peoria High 41, Morton’s Lady Potters 32

Meechie Edwards, the Peoria High coach, is my favorite sideline coach, mostly because I can hear him loud and clear, like, FROM A MILE AWAY!

But not tonight. We were in the presence of a new, mild-mannered Meechie.

“Our team motto this year is ‘Have fun.’ he said. “We’re living in a tough world. So even I’m toning it down.”

Also, he said, laughing, “My back’s sore.”

Also, as he did not say, it’s more fun to be on the laughing side of the scoreboard — especially against Morton. Not only are the Potters winners of four of the last six 3A state championships, they had defeated Peoria High five straight times, most recently two years ago by 22 points in a sectional tournament game.

But I hurry to say that every Potters victory over Peoria has been hard-won. Meechie’s teams have come at Morton hyper-aggresssively at both ends, asking no quarter, giving none.

The difference tonight, Peoria’s offense was as good as its defense. That’s because sophomore guard Aaliyah Guyton is fabulous with the ball. Need a step-back 3? Call Guyton. Her 20 points included 4 3’s, each put up more quickly and more smoothly than the last. Need a floater in the paint, using the board? She did that tonight, too. An old-timer in the Morton crowd (me) remembered another mercurial guard, one from a decade ago, Springfield High’s Zahna Medley. She’d break a defenders’ ankles with a cross-over dribble this time, next time she’d drop in a rainbow from 25 feet. (Medley went on to be Texas Christian University’s all-time leading scorer.)

Like many Potters games this season, this one was decided in the third quarter. And decided for them in a decidedly disappointing way.

Peoria led at halftime, 21-15, with Guyton scoring 15.

Then Peoria won the third quarter, 11-2.

Yes, Peoria 11, Morton 2.

Two points. As in one more than one. As in a Katie Krupa layup halfway through the quarter. By quarter’s end, Peoria led, 32-17.

Morton coach Bob Becker explained it this way: “In the third quarter. we freaked out. We lost our poise and composure.”

No coach whose team comes into a game 15-2 and ranked No. 2 in state 3A likes to hear such things said, and most certainly doesn’t want to hear them said by himself.

Becker went on, biting off more distasteful words. “We lost it between the ears.”

Did he say all that in the locker room to his players?

“Yes.”

The only consolation, small indeed, was Morton’s resilience in the fourth quarter. It went on a 13-4 run — featuring its only two 3-pointers of the night, both by freshman Ellie VanMeenen — to close the Peoria lead to 36-30 with 1:52 to play.

“We didn’t give up,” Becker said. “We got it to six.”

By then, Peoria had gone to a ball-control offense, basically toying with the Potters, playing keep-away, asking Guyton to extend her magic to a dribbling act that more than once saw her leave all five Potters wondering where she would be seen next. Morton scored once more as Peoria closed out with four free throws.

Peoria, ranked No. 5 in 3A, is now 14-3. “A great game,” Meechie Edwards said. “It does feel really good, after what they’ve done to us the last three, four years.”

Krupa and VanMeenen each had 10 points for the Potters. Izzy Hutchinson and Maggie Hobson each had 5. Tatym Lamprecht had 2.

“The Baby!”

Morton’s Lady Potters 48, Dunlap 30

Declan Rush was at a basketball game tonight for the first time in his life, and the question is, what in the world took so long? He is, after all, nine and a half months old.

Yes, the Potters played tonight at Dunlap. They won easy. And I’ll get to that. But right now, I’m gonna write about the baby.

Those darling little Nike shoes!

That “Morton” shirt!

There I was, flipping pages of a notebook, when Brooke Rush, the Potters’ all-time leading scorer as Brooke Bisping, asked, “Want to hold him?”

Oh my goodness, Brooke, I want to KEEP him!

After the game, Declan set foot on a basketball court for the first time. He set both feet on the court. And both hands. All the teenage Potters gathered to watch Declan crawl the baseline. Brooke had been the team’s assistant coach until motherhood and Covid intervened. Done working the baseline, Declan made a turn into the paint, maybe looking for a pass from mommy.

That baby is impossibly cute, exactly what we’d expect from a child with Brooke the mother and Tommy Rush the father, and, yes, I have now committed cuteness overload, and I will get to the basketball game and say the Potters were OK but nowhere near Declan in the cuteness department.

They were OK for 14 minutes, good enough to go on a 28-2 run that suggested they finally had achieved the consistent excellence that coach Bob Becker preaches — except, no, they hadn’t done that at all. Though playing with its leading scorer on the bench with an ankle injury, Dunlap used a full-court press to create a run of its own. Making three steals before Morton could get the ball across the mid-court line, Dunlap outscored the careless-with-the-ball Potters, 12-0, in five minutes.

What should have been a 40-point lead for the Potters — they once led, 36-9 — dwindled to a 13-point lead with two minutes to play.

“At times we played at a high level,” Becker said, “but other times we lacked focus and execution and intensity. It was disheartening.”

In that 28-2 run, six Potters scored. They scored on mid-range jumpers, on put-backs, on transition fast breaks, and on four 3-pointers. Inside that long run, by the way, Dunlap was shut out in the second quarter, 16-0, which was — maybe Declan even thought this — less a tribute to the Potters’ defense than evidence of Dunlap’s mediocrity with the ball in hand.

The victory raised Morton’s record to 16-2 (7-1 in the Mid-Illini Conference). Dunlap is now 9-11 and 4-4.

For the 16th time, Katie Krupa led Morton’s scoring. She had 21 points, every rebound she wanted, and enough blocked shots to discourage anyone wandering into the paint. Maggie Hobson, back from Covid, had 7 points, Tatym Lamprecht 6, Izzy Hutchinson 5, Ellie VanMeenen 4, Paige Griffin 3, Graci Junis 2.