“I was just hoping it would go in”

Chicago Simeon 45, Morton’s Lady Potters 44

Right now they’re crying. It is 2:58 on a Saturday afternoon and their hearts are broken. They have lost the state championship. They lost on a bucket with three seconds to go.

Olivia Remmert has draped a towel over her head. She might wish to disappear. Under the towel, she is crying. Stand near her, you hear her trying to get a breath between sobs.

With both hands, Katie Krupa tugs the top of her jersey to her eyes. She dabs at her eyes with the jersey. She covers her face with it. She moves toward a line of Potters, all of them crying. She stops to embrace Lindsey Dullard, friends and teammates sharing sorrow.

They’re crying because sports does that. It breaks your heart. Sometimes, not often but often enough it happens to most everybody, the other team goes ahead by a point with three seconds to play.

Peyton Dearing’s eyes are lost in tears. Her face is red, and it is pale, and the splotches are the colors of sadness and exhaustion . She is bent double on the team’s bench. She would straighten up if she could. But exhaustion has bent her double and she can’t raise her head.

Where is Courtney Jones? The ball came to her in those last three seconds. From the far end of the Redbird Arena court, Krupa threw a pass to Jones, who did what the play called “Duke” asked of her. Drive it downcourt. See what the defenders do. If there’s a shot for you, take it.

And now Courtney Jones is crying and all we see is the top of her head because she is leaning into her coach’s shoulder and Bob Becker has his arms around her and later he says, “My heart aches for her.” She did what he asked her to do. Take the shot to win it. Three seconds to do it, the clock ticking, two seconds, one, and Jones gets to the free throw circle. She puts up a shot on the run, a floating shot, call it a “runner,” “a floater.” It’s sometimes called a “tear drop.” The ball is in the air and Jones’s pretty runner floater tear drop might win the game. There would be hoorays through the night.

At 9 in the morning, they were teenagers laughing. They had come to the Potterdome for a shoot-around before going to Redbird for the state championship game. They were undefeated, 37 and 0. They could win a fifth state championship in six seasons. At 9:25, they heard Becker say they needed to lock down the other team’s best player. He used no name, a number, “number 24.” Olivia Remmert would play 24 man-to-man. Remmert is a 5-foot-6 senior who only last week, at the end of her high school career, became a starter, a quick, persistent, earnest defender now asked to do the Potters’ most important individual job in the season’s most important game. Stop number 24, who happens to be a 6-1 all-stater averaging 27 points a game.

“Our three bigs will be here,” Becker said, and by “bigs” he meant Lindsey Dullard, 6-foot-1, Katie Krupa, 6-2, and the 5-7 Jones. The coach wanted those three lined up across the paint, no more than a step in front of the basket, always with a foot in the paint. The idea was to keep Simeon’s true bigs (6-1, 6-2, 6-3) off the offensive board. Coaches call that a gimmick defense, a “triangle and two,” the bigs at the base of the triangle, Remmert glued to 24 with Dearing flying wherever she knew she was needed.

“We’re going to let number 2 and number 4 shoot,” Becker said. “If number 2 makes four in a row, yeah, then we’ll adjust.”

Maybe 10 minutes after 1, at the press table, a writer asked, “So what do you think?”

“We’ll know in 10 minutes of real time,” I said.

Maybe it was 10 minutes, maybe 15, but soon enough the Becker plan worked so well – Remmert in number 24’s face, the bigs keeping Simeon off the board – that the Chicagoans missed their first 13 shots and got one offensive rebound in that time.

It was Morton, 16-0, with 1:54 left in the first quarter.

For 10 or 15 minutes of real time, Morton was beautiful in every way a basketball team can be beautiful. Ball movement, inside and out. Bodies slamming against rebounders to move them out. The Potters threw in three 3’s in a minute, bang bang, bang. Simeon finally scored with 1:41 left in the quarter.

It was 21-12 when Morton brought the ball up-court in the last seconds of the first half. Simeon watched as Dullard stood with the ball three or four steps past mid-court, 30 feet out. Then, well, why not? Flat-footed, Dullard put up a shot.

With the ball in the air, the buzzer sounded, the red lights on the backboard lit up, and Dullard’s shot fell through, nothing but net.

About 2 o’clock, then, the Potters ran smiling into the locker room.

By 2:30, the Potters no longer led by 16. “Maybe we ran out of gas,” Becker said. Slowly but with a seeming inevitability, Simeon, bigger and stronger, used a full-court press to close the margin. Simeon scored nine straight points early in the fourth quarter and led, 38-37. Morton went up 42-38 and led again 44-43 with 50 seconds to play only to give up the game’s last basket to one of the bigs they’d kept off the boards all day. The girl had scored once in the game’s first 31 minutes and 57 seconds.

Now it is 3:35 and two sportswriters wait at the tunnel near the Potters’ locker room. Five minutes, 10, maybe 15 minutes, we wait. When the players walk past us, I touch Olivia Remmert’s arm and she stops. “You were fabulous,” I say, and I say that because number 24, a big-timer, didn’t score in the first half and wound up with 8 points. Remmert says only, “I really thought we had it.”

Courtney Jones stops. She’s a senior. Since grade school, she had dreamed of being a Potter. She’d played on two state championship teams. She put up a shot to win another, a shot in the air, the buzzer sounding, the board’s lights lit up, the shot beautiful in the air, and she said, “I was just hoping it would go in.”

By now it was 4 o’clock.

Outside, the team bus waited.

Courtney Jones left the building, crying, for sports breaks the hearts of those who care the most. The good news is, those who care the most will soon remember the good stuff and want to be in the arena again, laughing.

Krupa led Morton’s scoring with 19. Dearing had 13, Dullard 12.

“Daunting”

Morton’s Lady Potters 48, Springfield Lanphier 36

Now, one more. The Potters are 37 and 0. One game left. One for a state championship. They’ve chased it all season. Four state championships already and they’re knocking on history’s door. No one in their class has ever won five. Only one has ever been 38-0. Who was it, the old football coach Bum Phillips who said his guys wouldn’t knock on any stinkin’ door? “We going to kick the (profanity) in,” he said.

Now it’s the Potters’ turn.

One more game.

Won’t be easy.

But who wants easy in March? November maybe, even January. But the stuff that gets a team through February – Bob Becker calls it “toughness, grittiness, resilience” – is the stuff a team needs more than ever on the first weekend in March when the Illinois girls high school basketball season ends in Redbird Arena.

Tomorrow, when Morton plays for the Class 3A state championship, the Potters absolutely, positively, certainly, and sure as (profanity) will need their best stuff.

That’s because today’s victory over Springfield Lanphier means the Potters’ one more game, one last game, is against the best team they have seen this season. Chicago Simeon is 33-3 overall. The Chicagoans are big and strong up-front, 6-foot-1, 6-2, 6-3. Their defense is a wide-spread 2-3 zone reaching nearly sideline to sideline. Simeon’s offense stars all-stater Aneesah Morrow, who scores 27 a game, inside and out. Mostly, it relies on full-frontal attack. They run at the rim, throw up a brick if they must, chase it down, and throw it at the glass again. They’re good at it. They beat four-time state champion Lombard Montini today, 48-40, because they had 20 offensive rebounds and won in the paint, 28-16.

Becker watched that game. Later, asked what he thought of Simeon, the coach said, “Daunting.”

In Morton’s first 12 minutes today, the Potters were as good as they must be tomorrow. They quickly ran out to an 11-2 lead. A little later came a 12-0 run that put them up 27-14 midway in the second quarter. At that point, Morton looked every bit the efficient offensive and defensive team it has been all season. At halftime, Morton led 31-20. Its own all-stater, Lindsey Dullard, had scored 17 of her game-high 23 points. Becker later called her performance “a big-time game by a big-time player.”

But after those early minutes of smooth success, the Potters stumbled. Becker credited Springfield Lanphier with tenacious defense, which is a kind way of saying the losers had good athletes who made up in frenzied activity what they lacked in fundamental skills. But even as Morton built a 35-20 lead early in the third quarter, the game devolved into a hectic mess only occasionally interrupted by someone’s brief rally.

Morton scored six points in the third quarter, two in the last five minutes. Lanphier won the quarter, 9-6. Morton won the fourth quarter, 11-7, meaning the second half went to Morton, 17-16. There came a point, however, when everyone suddenly came awake. Scarily to the couple thousand Morton fans in the arena, Lanphier closed within five at 39-34 with 6:07 to play.

To the rescue came Becker’s friends Toughness, Grit & Resilience. Morton allowed Lanphier 13 offensive rebounds. It went 2-for-12 on 3’s (0 of 6 in the second half). So the Potters needed all of TG&R’s help, most of it coming from defense that forced 23 turnovers, 14 in the second half.

No sooner had Lanphier threatened late, Morton settled the issue with a 7-0 run. Dullard began it with a pair of driving layups, Olivia Remmert followed with a free throw, and Katie Krupa powered her way to the rim. It was 46-34 with 3:48 to play. Courtney Jones’s two free throws with 1:27 to play were the game’s last points.

Now, for the Potters, time to kick in the (profanity) door of history.

Dullard’s 23 led Morton. Krupa had 8, Jones and Peyton Dearing 7 each, Remmert 3.

“We get to feel tall”

Morton’s Lady Potters 45, Providence Catholic 12

Nobody loves to play defense. Everyone wants to shoot. Kids don’t go out in the driveway and practice step-slides. The guy writing these reports ends every one with who scored how many points. Maybe later, like next week, he’ll throw in a stat about something exotic, like deflections. But, really. The basketball stars are the folks who can throw the big ball through the little hoop.

Except . . .

Except here . . .

Except with the Lady Potters, whose defense is so extraordinary that when I asked the losing coach, Eileen Copenhaver, what she thought of the Morton defenders, she started to speak, fell silent, at a loss for words, stammering, until finally she said, “Just extraordinary.”

Let’s try a longer sentence. Let’s say Morton’s defenders are extraordinary for their quickness, savvy, energy, enthusiasm, stamina, and commitment to relentless pressure on the ball.

Also, they’re on fire. They have a defense called “2 Fire.” It has Morton’s two smallest people, 5-foot-4 Peyton Dearing and 5-6 Olivia Remmert, doing what they do. They make people crazy.

I’ll tell you how they do that, and I’ll tell you what weirdness goes on when they do it, but first let’s talk about the number 12.

Providence Catholic scored 12 points tonight. Providence Catholic is one of the last eight of 175 teams alive in the Class 3A state tournament. It had won 28 games. Yet its scoring tonight by quarter went 7, 1, 2, 2. This in a super-sectional. This one step from Redbird Arena. This a running-clock game.

In some instances, this would seem the unlikeliest of running-clock games. Not so much tonight. Six other times this season, the Potters have allowed no more than 19 points. Twelve times they have held opponents under 30. So, while giving up 12 points is an extreme example of Morton’s defensive skills, it is not beyond expectation or explanation.

First, Morton is now 36-0. It is the defending 3A state champion. It has been ranked No. 1 all season. The expectation was, Morton buries Providence Catholic. The explanation is more difficult to put into two or three sentences, but assistant coach Bill Davis tonight did a nice job of putting it into one memorable sentence.

“If you ain’t guarding somebody,” he said, “you ain’t playing.”

They’re flat guarding everybody in town. By recording their 200th victory over the last six seasons, the Potters moved on to the state semifinals Friday at Redbird Arena. There they will play Springfield Lanphier. A victory puts them in the championship game Saturday afternoon with a chance to win their fifth title in six seasons..

Back for a moment to Dearing and Remmert, the little people who put the fire in “2 Fire” by running at whatever poor Providence Catholic girl happened to be stuck with the ball near mid-court. Once free to move, the girl suddenly is surrounded by dozens of people, or just Remmert and Dearing running, jumping and leaping in their disguises as a dozen defenders, closing off avenues of escape, denying passing lanes, daring the ball-handler to pick up the dribble, an act that allows Remmert and Dearing to close down on her neck, leave her breathless, and, yes, make her crazy enough to bounce the rock into the third row of the bleachers (it happened) or just start dribbling again (it happened) or lose the ball on a 5-second call (yes) or a 10-second call (that, too).

Best, those two little Potters looked like they were on trampolines, bouncing around so much that Providence Catholic ball-handlers were forced to throw high lobs to complete even the simplest of passes.

“If I can’t score,” Remmert said, “at least I can get some deflections.” Then, smiling at Dearing, she said, “And for a few seconds, we do so much jumping, we get to feel tall.”

Now, let’s pretend Providence Catholic had a chance in the second half. The halftime score was 23-8. A good team could come back. But Morton had shot poorly in the first half. It had made 2-of-15 three-point attempts. Up by 15 and playing poorly on offense, the Potters were a cinch to blow the game open in the third quarter. And they did.

After Providence Catholic scored the third quarter’s first two points, Morton scored the last 17.

Those 3-pointers they missed early? Not missing them later.

At 4:51 of the third quarter, Courtney Jones made a 3 from the right side, high.

At 3:55, Maggie Hobson a 3 from the same spot.

At 3:37, Dearing a dagger from the deep right corner.

In 74 seconds, that’s nine points against a team that in 1,920 seconds scored 12. In those 74 seconds, three field goals; the losers made five all night.

It was in that game-turning 17-0 run that Providence Catholic threw a ball into the bleachers, double-dribbled, and had those two time violations. It was the kind of nervous-breakdown performance that happens when an extraordinary defensive team is at its best, as the Potters were tonight.

One more thing. Remmert was involved in an odd situation late in the first quarter. The score was 10-3, Morton. She dove for a loose ball near the Providence Catholic bench. Players there started taunting Remmert, clapping in her face. A referee warned Providence Catholic that if that happened again, it would be charged with a technical. After the game, an official from Kankakee High School, hosts for the tournament, came to Remmert and said, “You did a good job there, keeping your poise.”

As for Morton’s scoring, Jones led with 15, Lindsey Dullard had 9, Dearing 6, Katie Krupa 5, Maggie Hobson 5, Paige Griffin 3, and Cailyn Cowley 2.

As for deflections, Remmert a bunch.

“No. No. No. No. No.”

Morton’s Lady Potters 63, Peoria Central 43

So I looked Peyton Dearing in the eye.

I tapped her left shoulder.

“What I’m about to say,” I said, “I say with admiration and respect.”

This was after the game. This was after the closest 20-point game ever. This was after the little Potters’ guard had scored 19 points and made an unlikely play that turned the tide. This was after she had climbed a ladder to help cut down the net in celebration of a sectional championship.

I said, “You are one tough little sweetheart.”

Strike that “sweetheart” word. My word did begin with an “s.” And it did end with a “t.” And you, dear reader, are free to fill in the two letters in between.

No news in that, of course, for we have seen Peyton Dearing do things that put her in situations where the only way out is to stand your ground and take the heat and . . .

Well, here, look at Dearing in the paint. Morton led, 46-43, with 5 minutes to play. Anybody’s game. Terrific game. A defensive war at both ends. A heavyweight fight even. You dare not blink for fear of missing the knockout punch. You do not breathe without wondering how long it had been since you last breathed.

And here came Dearing, flying downcourt with a steal. Wide-open layup. Except she had flown too far. Her layup struck the underside of the rim.Now the ball was loose. A mad scramble. Bodies tumbling around Dearing’s feet. Maybe somebody knows how many people lunged for the basketball, slapped at it, fell trying to corral the damn greased pig. Maybe somebody who is not me knows how the ball got to Katie Krupa near the free throw line. And those who saw Krupa with it thought she was going up for a 12-foot jumper.

“I thought so,” Dearing said.

Until she saw Krupa pass it to her.

The little guard was standing right where she’d missed the layup, and here came the ball, and what she did then was what tough little sweethearts do. She took Krupa’s pass, standing in the mess of people at her shoelaces, and from four feet banked it in.

Morton’s lead was then 48-43 with 4:55 to play.

I thought, “Ballgame.”

I breathed again.

Peoria Central, for all its good work, had not shown it could sustain any offense against the Potters’ defense. Only once all night did it score as many as six straight points. Allowing Morton a five-point lead with fewer than five minutes to play put Peoria Central in deep trouble. After Dearing’s bucket, Morton coach Bob Becker switched his defense from man-to-man to a 2-3 zone that baffled the Peorians so completely they were reduced to flinging the rock at the rim and hoping something good would happen. Nope.

Did I say it was the closest 20-point game ever? Absolutely. It was 44-43, Morton, with 5:46 to play. The lead had changed hands eight times, twice in the first two minutes of the last quarter. Anybody’s ballgame, right?

“No,” was Dearing’s answer.

“No,” Lindsey Dullard said.

Courtney Jones: “No, never.”

Maggie Hobson: “No.”

“Honestly,” Katie Krupa said, “not at all.”

Becker’s whiteboard carried a pair of pre-game reminders that spoke volumes later. “POISE – COMPOSURE. GRIT-COMPETE.” Against a Peoria Central team that is a perpetual-motion machine of aggressive play at both ends, it’s easy to lose poise, easy to yield to the pressure. But when it mattered most, the Potters said emphatically, “No. No, never. Honestly, never at all.”

Instead, they went on a 19-0 run to turn a one-point lead into a 20-point blowout. This was good stuff. If we call it a heavyweight fight, that 19-0 run was Muhammad Ali closing the show, dancing, leaving no doubt..

The run began this way: Dullard from 15 feet, Dearing on that 4-footer, Krupa a layup off a Hobson rebound and a Jones 30-foot pass.

Then: A Krupa power move, two free throws and a layup by Dearing, another Krupa free throw, four Dullard free throws, and with 11.8 seconds to play, Olivia Remmert found herself with the ball on the low right block. By then the issue was settled and Morton had been backing away from shots. With 11.8 seconds to play and her team 18 up and no one near her, what’s a defensive specialist to do?

“Like, uh, should I shoot it?” Remmert said.

She decided, “Probably.”

So she banked it in.

Hooray.

Oh, one more thing. That sweetheart thing. I mentioned it to Bob Becker.

The coach said, “They all are.”

Dearing’s 19 led Morton’s scoring. Dullard and Krupa each had 14. Jones had 8, Hobson 6, and Remmert her unquestioned 2.

“It wasn’t ‘Panic City’”

Morton’s Lady Potters 54, Peoria Richwoods 38

Oh, how I loved this. Katie Krupa with the ball. Low on the left side, a step outside the paint. Three steps later, she is across the paint and she is going up for what is an impossible shot that only a sophomore would even think might be a good idea. I mean, by now her back is to the basket. The rim is somewhere behind and above her. But she’s going up. And I’m here to say I’ve been bamboozled by the best of them, confused, hornswoggled and also dumbounded. But this. What IS she doing?

Krupa is moving the ball from her right hand to her left.

And with her left she puts the ball backwards over her head where it kisses the glass tenderly and falls in for two points.

Now call me gobsmacked.

It made the score 44-27 in the middle of a run that won it for Morton.

And before we get to the start of that run, let me ask a question.

What is it about Katie Krupa and Richwoods?

Three times last season, as a freshman, Krupa played her best games against the Potters’ greatest rival, including 21 points in a sectional championship game that was, for all intents and purposes, the real state championship game.

Tonight, she did it again.

Twenty-four points, 17 of them in the decisive second half.

All of them scored in the paint, all the result of tireless work for position on offense and rebounding, all of it done with Richwoods’ best hammering at her body and soul and doing nothing but causing her coach, Bob Becker, to call her “Katie ‘Sectional’ Krupa.”

“I don’t know what happens to me with Richwoods,” Krupa said afterwards.“But I like these high-pressure games.”

What Krupa ended, Olivia Remmert, of all people, had started.

Oh, how I really loved this one.

With just over 6 minutes to play and the issue unsettled, a Richwoods player held the ball overhead.

Mistake.

Remmert noticed the ball up there.

She remembered a lesson from Becker.

“Coach always says, ‘Don’t hold the ball over your head.’”

So here’s what Remmert did.

She walked up behind the Richwoods player. The 5-foot-6 senior has become an invaluable defensive specialist, rushed in and out of key moments as the ball changes hands. Sneaky, she was this time. Soft afoot, she was. The music here would be a line of bass notes suggesting stealth. As the music rose, Remmert would reach up with both hands, snap them closed around the ball, and before the victim felt a thing, Remmert would say, “Ah, so kind of you. Thank you very much. Yes, I will take the basketball.”

And take it she did, the broad-daylight pick-pocketry the catalyst in Morton’s third-quarter dominance — a 14-5 run in 3 minutes — that moved the undefeated, No. 1-ranked, defending state champion Potters into Thursday night’s sectional championship game at Rock Island High School.

Richwoods came in with 27 victories. If anyone within 50 miles of Morton can be called a consistent rival to the Potters, it is Richwoods. Always aggressive defensively, always well coached, Richwoods is the 2018 state champion and had designs on another title this season – if only it could handle Morton.

For a half tonight, this was a high-intensity game, more a master class in defense than anything else. Richwoods’ scrambling, athletic, in-your-face defenders played their match-up zone to its usual high standard. John Wooden always told his players, “Be quick, don’t hurry.” Richwoods’ quickness defensively forces its opponents’ offenses to hurry. The result is beautiful defense creating ugly offense.

However good Richwoods’ defense was, Morton’s was better. More dependable, less likely to be burned by mistakes.

So at halftime, it was 17-12, Morton.

What usually happens with the Potters at halftime didn’t happen this time.

Becker usually checks the scorebook for fouls. It’s detail work. It’s also time to think while his team goes to the locker room. Then Becker, en route to the locker room, convenes with his assistants. Three or four minutes later, he goes in to talk to his players.

Not tonight.

Tonight the players had barely sat down on the locker room benches before they heard this sound at the door – BOOM!

And the door flew open, and the senior guard, Courtney Jones, who has been around and has seen things and heard things, heard a new sound.

Jones said the BOOM! caused her to think, “Oh, no.”

Jones suspected what the Potters soon realized.

“Coach was a little angry at us,” the little senior Peyton Dearing said, a little smile playing across her face.

“Coach was mad, really mad,” Krupa said, wide-eyed at the things a sophomore learns along the way. “He was not enjoying this at all.”

It wasn’t so much that 17-12 score. It wasn’t that the Potters’ offense had been turned off. It was that in the last 24 seconds of the half, Morton had contrived to not only lose the ball but allow Richwoods to score in the last second and a half. Instead of, maybe, a 10-point lead, it was a 5-point lead.

Of such details is a coach’s life made miserable.

And coaches who are miserable soon go ker-BOOM!-ing into locker rooms. There they explain to players what made them miserable. In Becker’s case, he had seen an in-bounds play go wrong and had seen his defenders allow a Richwoods player a free run at a layup at the buzzer.

“It wasn’t ‘Panic City,’” Becker said later, always happier to be ahead by five than behind by anything. “But, details – either they were forgetting the details we’d worked on – or they were ignoring them.”

After the coach’s halftime oratory, Morton’s starters stood in a huddle of their own at midcourt, waiting for the third quarter to start. Jones did most of the talking. “I said, ‘This is NOT going to be the last half of our senior season,’” she said later.

Remmert’s steal led to that 14-5 run that gave Morton a 54-31 lead with 2 ½ minutes to play. Eight of Krupa’s points, including the left-handed reverse layup, came in that run. Dearing scored four, two on a slashing drive that saw her disappear among the big people and somehow rematerialize and curl in a layup. Lindsey Dullard scored the other four, first on a jumper an arm’s-length from the rim, later on a layup produced by a Jones steal and lead pass.

“The second half was as dominant as we’ve played all season,” Becker sacid, which is quite the thing to hear from a coach whose team is now 34-0, on a 44-game winning streak, and mostly unchallenged in the calendar year 2020.

Krupa’s 24 led Morton’s scoring. Dullard had 16, Dearing 9, Maggie Hobson 3, Jones 2, and Remmert had her usual number, the number 0.

“”How did THAT go in?’”

Morton’s Lady Potters 49, Washington 22

Yes, the 3’s were nice.

Dearing, Dullard, Hobson.

From the left arc, midway.

From the left arc, high.

From the deep left corner.

Bang! Bang!! BANG!!!

Suddenly, the Potters finished an 18-0 run with three exclamation points of the kind that get your heart to going pitty-patter even as they tell the befuddled opponents that, yes, it used to be close, 9-8, but now, 5 1/2 minutes later, you’re behind, 27-8, and you know it’s going to get worse before it’s over and someone hands a regional championship trophy to the Potters for the sixth straight year (and 10 out of 11). Next up for Morton: a sectional semifinal against Peoria Richwoods at 6 p.m. Monday in Rock Island.

Even more dispiriting tonight, if you’re Washington, you know you’re not behind because the Potters are one of the best long-range shooting teams in the heartland. (A dozen Potters have made 3’s this season, and half of those shooters are capable of multiple 3’s any night.)

Washington was behind because Morton’s defense is sensational. Again, as they’ve done so often in this 33-0 season – when they’ve stretched their winning streak to 43 games – when they’re chasing a fifth state championship in six years – again, the Potters rendered another team’s offense inoperable, kaput, and also dead. The raucous Morton crowd sent up rounds of applause FOR DEFENSE. And tell me when you last heard of such a thing in girls’ high school basketball.

That applause came in the first minute of the second quarter when Morton’s man-to-man was so tight, so aggressive, so smart in anticipation and helping and hedging that Washington could get nothing done except toss the ball to somebody who might seem open but really wasn’t. And so a guy making notes of the defensive work comes now with a grocery list of the ways the Washingtons failed to score for the last three minutes of the first quarter and first seven minutes of that second quarter. Here’s that list:

“Walking“ … “Double-drib”…”Run OB”…”Airball 3”…”Airball 3” … “Jump ball, M’s poss”… “Steal”… “Miss 3 hurried layups”… “Dribbler drives OB”… “Tries 25’ 3, clang!” …

So, for 10 minutes and 2 seconds which must have seemed like days without end, the Washingtons were shut out and Morton’s lead grew to 29-8 on the evening’s most unlikely bucket.

Not a beautiful 3.

Not an elegant, slashing drive to the rim.

No, no, what Olivia Remmert did to cap the Potters’ 20-0 run was so, so much more fun than that.

She’s a 5-foot-6 senior who comes off the bench, mostly for defense. She’s steady in the man-to-man and a pest as well, deflections here, anticipatory steals there.

That said, I prefer tonight to make a big deal out of her one bucket in this game. For all the truth in what Lindsey Dullard would say later – “We started playing our game midway in the first quarter and into the second quarter” – the one undeniable signal that it was Morton’s night came on the Remmert bucket.

The left-hander moved with the ball from the right side of the lane across the paint. With nowhere more to go, she went up for a shot – only she had such momentum on the drive that she found herself flying toward the middle block along the left side of free throw lane.

So what’s a girl to do?

She throws up a kind of a . . . let’s be kind here . . a hook shot.

“A prayer,” is what the smiling Remmert more properly called it.

As she sent up the prayer, with no good look at the rim, Remmert knew better than to expect a divine answer.

“I saw it go over the rim,” she said, “and I thought, ‘Airball.’”

Until she heard the crowd’s roaring . . .

“It was like they’re saying, ‘How did THAT go in?’”

Yep. Went in. When you’re good enough to be good, you’re sometimes good enough to be lucky. All that mattered was that Remmert’s shot sailed truly over the iron and smoothly through the net. Someone in the crowd, and his voice sounded like mine, said, “She MEANT to do that.”

So it was 29-8 with 2:39 to play in the half. Soon enough it was 38- 12 late in the third quarter. And I cannot pass on the fourth quarter without describing – trying to describe – one more basket, this one by the little guard Peyton Dearing, who found herself with the ball under the hoop when Dullard had lost it in a collision.

Dearing doesn’t belong in the paint except for those mini-seconds when she flies in on a fast break.

“There was the ball,” she said, “so I just scooped it up.” Her back was to the baseline, her feet among fallen bodies all around her, and the left-hander did a Remmert kind of thing. She just tossed the ball toward where she imagined the rim might be.

Did she even see the rim?

“Not really,” she said.

But when you’re good, you can get lucky.

Dearing’s shot – can we even call it a shot? – bounced on the rim once or twice and fell in. Not a bang this time, a whisper. And the Potters led 45-18 with 6:59 to play.

Afterwards, coach Bob Becker had nice things to say about everyone. And I’m here to say Lindsey, Lindsey, Lindsey. “She’s first-team all-state,” Becker said, “and she may be one of the top 3 players in all of Illinois.” Who wants to argue that? Not only is the 6-foot-1 senior an offensive threat inside and out, Dullard has become an outstanding rebounder and defender all over the court. “She always wants to guard the other team’s best player,” Becker said, and tonight Washington’s best player paid the price for a game against Morton. “I think she got 3 points,” Dullard told Becker, and, yes, it was three.

Dullard and Dearing each had 14 points tonight (each with two 3’s). Katie Krupa had 10, Maggie Hobson 6 (on two 3’s), Courtney Jones 3, and Remmert those two that came just the way we knew they would. Sure.

“Striving for perfection”

Morton’s Lady Potters 70, East Peoria 11

After a quarter, it was 25-2. At the half, 42-5. After three, 65-7.  Morton played 14 girls evenly, with the Morton starters playing less than half of the game’s 32 minutes.  Seventy-eleven was actually an act of tender mercy. Morton’s really good while East Peoria’s really not at the same level. The cumulative score of their three meetings this season is 203-57.

That’s good offense. It’s better defense. The Potters are relentless at both ends of the court, never taking a second off. But their perpetual movement is more evident on defense where some teams have trouble completing the simplest of passes. By intercepting passes, by picking ball-handler’s pockets, by closing passing lanes, Morton takes the air out of every opponent’s offense. In tonight’s first half, East Peoria gave up the ball without a shot 23 times. It did it every way it could be done: balls thrown into the bleachers, traveling, double-dribble, over and back, 10 seconds, an illegal screen. And that doesn’t count air balls (five).

All of that is the work of defense that gives ball-handlers the screaming- meemies. Or, to quote the more diplomatic Morton coach, Bob Becker, “We made them uncomfortable.”

They did it with Becker’s encouragement, as noted with a minute to play when he shouted from the bench at a third-stringer who, with the score 65-7, might have intercepted a cross-court pass had she recognized it a heartbeat earlier.

“We’re striving for perfection,” the coach said later, smiling at the things coaches say when they’re well pleased. Then, with a bigger smile, “That’s not too much to ask, is it?”

So his Potters opened the game with a perfect 25-0 run. And they closed the third quarter with a perfect 23-0 run. They were really perfectly comfortable.

The Potters are now 32-0 and on a 42-game winning streak. The victory moved them to the regional championship game Friday night against the hosts, Washington High, an easy winner tonight over LaSalle-Peru. Six more victories in the regional, sectional, super-sectional and finals at Redbird Arena would give Morton its fifth Class 3A state championship in six seasons.

That possibility is produced by moments such as this from tonight’s game:

An East Peoria girl thought to put up a 3-point shot from the left side.  Lindsey Dullard had other plans.  What did Lindsey do?

“I closed out hard,” she said.

Meaning that as the 5-foot-7 East Peorian went up for the shot early in the second quarter, the 6-foot-1 Potter came at her in a hurry.

With both hands Dullard smothered the basketball before it got airborne, a sensational defensive play 20 feet out on the court.

“And somehow the ball fumbled back into her hands,” Dullard said.

Morton’s Courtney Jones drew the defensive assignment of one of East Peoria’s top scorers.

“In the locker room before the game,” Jones said, “I said, ‘My girl’s getting zero tonight.’”

I checked the scorebook afterwards.

“Courtney,” I said, “she got 2.”

“Not against me,” Jones said brightly.

From the first practice of the season on, Jones said the Potters have been concentrating on defense. “To win the state championship again,” she said, “we knew we’d have to be good on defense, too. We have so many scorers that we weren’t worried about that. And now our defense has been progressing all season. We’re doing a really good job man-to-man and helping each other.”

For the first time this season, the Potters had five players score in double figures: Katie Krupa led with 12, Jones, Dullard and Maggie Hobson 11 each, and Peyton Dearing 10. Cailyn Cowley had 7, Olivia Remmert 6 & Abby Steider 2.

“Epitome of consistent excellence”

Morton’s Lady Potters 59, Dunlap 37

Courtney Jones first scored in an official basketball game when she was a third-grader, 10 years old. It happened in Tremont one summer day. What she did in celebration was memorable. She ran off the court. She ran into the bleachers. There she found her grandmother, Becky, who had been late arriving. There she said, “Grandma, Grandma, I made two baskets.” After which she ran back onto the court to play some more.

On this Valentine’s Day night, let me say Courtney Jones loves basketball the way we all should be in love with something and somebody. With about two minutes left in tonight’s game – the last game Jones will ever play in the Potterdome, a Senior Night game that was as pure Americana as the heartland can get – the rip-roarin’est pep band in the land, cheerleaders dancing up a storm, the old gym shimmering in Potter-red decorations from floor to ceiling – on this grand night, Courtney Jones had one more chance to make one more basket.

She’d made none. A point guard extraordinaire, Jones had given the ball to everyone else, once threading the needle from 40 feet to a flying Peyton Dearing … Dearing another senior . . . Dearing taking the ball in full stride, needing only a step and a half to complete as pretty a fast-break as you’ll ever see girls make . . . and no surprise at that athletic grace if you ask her mother, Ericka, who tells you her daughter was a champion gymnast at age 5. “We knew it early,” the mother said, “because she was always doing somersaults in her diapers.”

But Jones. She hadn’t scored.

In the first minute of the fourth quarter – only seven minutes to the end – Jones might have put up a 3 from the low right corner. Instead, she worked her way along the baseline until she saw what she was looking for, Lindsey Dullard in the opposite corner. They’ve played together since the third grade. Dullard, who “just loved basketball,” her mother, Janet, said tonight . . . Dullard, who learned to shoot in the driveway with her brothers . . . at age 10 she would ride her bicycle around the neighborhood only to stop and shoot hoops with the bike helmet on, then ride and shoot some more . . . Dullard, who scored 25 tonight, who made four 3’s, the last off the Jones pass, a play that caused her coach, Bob Becker, to shout from the bench, “PERFECT!”

But Jones. Not a single bucket to report to grandma.

Becker called timeout with 2:12 to play.

He wanted to get his seniors out of the game, one at a time, so the 1,000 fans in the Potterdome could celebrate them one last time. They would be undefeated in the regular season’s 31 games. They would win the Mid-Illini Conference a sixth straight time, going unbeaten for the fourth straight time, stretching a M-I winning streak to 61 games. In the last five seasons and this one, they are now 195-13. They begin regional play next Tuesday with a chance to win their fifth state championship in six years.

Out came Dullard to a standing ovation. Out came Dearing. Out came Olivia Remmert.

But not Jones.

Becker wanted her to score at least once.

“You need to do it,” the coach told her.

Now a minute to play.

“Is it OK,” Jones said, this girl who knows how to play and smiles doing it, “if I go between my legs for a step-back three?”

“However you need to do it,” Becker said.

Instead, she worked her way through the Dunlap defenders for a layup.

And then, with 21 seconds to play, Jones came off the Potterdome floor one last time, not into her grandma’s arms but into her coach’s as the grandmother rose smiling behind the Potters’ bench.

The game had never been in doubt. Morton ran off to a 14-0 lead with Dullard scoring the game’s first eight points. The third- or fourth-best team in the Mid-Illini with 17 victories this season, Dunlap made a short-lived run at competing with the Potters. It moved within six at 21-15 midway in the second quarter only to see Morton go on a 19-6 run that settled the issue – the last nine points coming in a two-minute burst that began with a Dearing 3 and included a Dullard slashing drive to the rim, a Katie Krupa power move inside, and two Dullard free throws.

Becker begins every Senior Night — this is his 21st season — by eliciting from the seniors what he calls “Words of Wisdom.” Tonight he quoted . . .

Jones: “All the 6 a.m. summer open gyms, the extra training, the two-a-day practices, and even getting yelled at by
Coach was all worth it. I’d do it all over again!”

Dullard: “”If you give everything you have to whatever you love, success will follow.”

Dearing: “Always remember, a smile increases your face value.”

Abby Steider, who played as a senior after sitting out three years:: “If you have thoughts of quitting a sport you have played your whole life, DON’T.”

Remmert: “Being positive won’t guarantee you’ll succeed. But being negative will guarantee you won’t.”

Makenna Baughman quoted Kobe Bryant: “If you do not believe in yourself, no one will do it for you.”

Maddy Becker, whose season ended a month ago with an ACL injury: “Play every game like it’s your last.”

At game’s end, Becker gathered his 16 players at midcourt, including two stars out with njuries — Maddy Becker and Raquel Frakes (ACL surgery is set for March 12).

“I told them they were the epitome of consistent excellence,” Becker said. “And I said there were still good things to come in the post-season.”

The coach also said another thing that caused Remmert some concern.

Remmert, a veteran of four years work under Becker’s direction, said, “Coach said, ‘No practice, no lifting tomorrow or Sunday.’ So I put my hand on his forehead and asked, ‘Coach, are you OK?’”

Dullard’s 25 led Morton’s scoring. Krupa hade 9, Dearing 6, Remmert 5, Makenna Baughman 5, Cailyn Cowley 4, Maggie Hobson 3, and Jones the last 2 she’ll ever get in the Potterdome.

“Man, that was fun to watch”

Morton’s Lady Potters 68, Limestone 45

It was 12-0 after two minutes. It was 32-0 after 6 ½ minutes. It was headed to 192-0.

One of my grandma buddies turned to a new friend a row behind us. The woman’s name was Ilga. She’d never been to a Lady Potters game and had been whooping it up with every 3-pointer and every steal and everything done sensationally.

The grandma said to Ilga, “Isn’t this fun?”

And Ilga, her hands clasped, her face aglow, said, “That’s an UNDERSTATEMENT.”

OK. Now. You may want to turn down the volume. I’m going to go on an unholy rant.

I do not beg your pardon. I do not ask forgiveness. I don’t care. Some things need to be said. I’m not a coach, not an athletic director, not a principal or anyone who has power or influence in Morton High School and the Mid-Illini Conference. I’m an old man in the crowd, three rows up, taking notes to write a thing on his Facebook page. I’m here to say there was a coward in the Potterdome tonight. He wore a striped shirt.

I recognized his craven behavior 19 seconds into the third quarter.

I looked up “craven” to be sure I had the right word.

Dictionary says, “Contemptibly lacking in courage.”

The right word.

I never dwell on referees’ judgment calls. The game moves too fast for most of the middle-aged men with whistles. I figure the bad calls even out.

Not tonight. Tonight things must be said.

It was Morton 49-15 when Lindsey Dullard broke loose for a fast-break layup. A Limestone girl, with no chance to make a defensive play, chose to make a play that could have injured Dullard. With Dullard at full speed, the Limestone girl used both hands to shove her in the low back. The shove propelled the helpless and defenseless Dullard into the stage wall at the court’s end. Any number of bad things could have happened. A month ago, Dullard suffered a concussion when hammered to the floor on a driving layup.

This foul was so obvious and done with such shameless intent that even the man in the striped shirt saw it and called a foul.

Then he did the most craven thing of all.

He called it a one-shot foul.

Dullard, about to drop in a layup at full speed, was shoved from behind and thrown off the court. And you’re telling me that’s a one-shot foul?

It’s absolutely two shots.

And if the striped shirt had half the courage of Dullard, he’d have done what needed to be done.

He’d have called it a flagrant foul. Two free throws and the ball to Morton.

He would’ve ejected the Limestone player.

He’d have gone to the Limestone bench. There he would have said, “Any more of that, Coach, and you’re putting your team on the bus and going home. This game will be over.”

The play itself was of no great moment other than it foreshadowed in a real, sad way what happened less than a minute later.

Morton’s lead was 52-15 after Courtney Jones made a beautiful lob to Raquel Frakes for a perfectly-executed alley-oop layup at 7:14 of the third quarter.

On Limestone’s ensuing possession, Frakes batted the ball loose at mid-court and was about to dive for it when she felt it happen.

“I’d planted my right foot,” she said later, “and a Limestone girl hit my left knee and we fell.”

What I saw, from three rows up, was what the football people have decided is an illegal block. The football people! Football doesn’t allow it. But here came a Limestone player hurling herself at Frakes’s knees. It wasn’t an obvious intent to foul, as on the Dullard layup. Things happen in a basketball game. It’s a contact sport as much as it isn’t. But I’m on a rant and I’m here to say the Limestone girl would not have hurled herself into the pile-up if the referees had used their power and influence to keep the game under control earlier. Limestone is a mediocre team, Morton is a great team now 30-0. It was never a contest, and, sad to say, in such games the weaker team tries to make up for its lack of skill by resorting to hacking, clawing, bumping, shoving defenseless players, and throwing themselves after loose balls.

And there lie Raquel Frakes in pain. Groping at her right knee.

A man behind me in the bleachers said, “I heard it pop.”

I heard that pop. I hoped I hadn’t. I hoped it was Frakes’s knee slamming against the court.

“Four times,” she said later. Four times she heard a pop. The player her coach calls “the best sixth man in the state of Illinois” was carried off the court by assistant coach Megan Hasler and athletic trainer Katie Gavin. She returned to the bench late in the third quarter. She will be examined by an orthopedist in the morning. Best case: a sprain. Worst case: a torn ACL, which would be the second suffered by the Potters, coming three weeks after Maddy Becker went down.

The injury came in Frakes’s first start of the season. She replaced Peyton Dearing, who sat out as she recovered from a second round of kidney stones refusing to pass. Frakes was injured even as five Potter reserves waited at the scorer’s table to be waved in.

A minute later, 6:07 of the third, the Potters’ coach, Bob Becker, screamed at a referee, “TIMEOUT!” It was not Becker’s first scream. He pointed that out to the referee, who had been the referee on the Dullard play and who shouted back, “Didn’t hear you, Coach,” which may have caused Becker to wonder aloud how a man both blind and deaf had earned his striped shirt. And maybe that man somehow heard Becker’s second remarks because he T’d up the coach there. Brave of him at last.

The Potters were as good as they could have been tonight. “Great energy and enthusiasm,” Becker said. “We played basketball the way it should be played.” They moved the ball unselfishly, getting it to the right shooter at the right place at the right time. Defensively, they gave Limestone not an inch of breathing room whether in the paint or 35 feet out. I’m not overstating it when I say it could have been 100-to-freakin’ zero. It was 35-3 at the quarter, 49-15 at the half and 52-15 when Frakes went down a minute into the third. After that, nothing much mattered except getting out of there alive. Limestone had 22 fouls, Morton 8.

“Man, that was fun to watch,” Becker said. “And in the locker room later, we had a group hug.” Here the coach spread wide his arms, as if hugging each and every Potter in the room. With a smile: “And I don’t care how awkward that was.”

Dullard led Morton’s scoring with 22. Katie Krupa had Frakes had 9 apiece. Maggie Hobson and Olivia Remmert had 6 each. Sedona McCartney had 5, Jones 4, Claire Reiman 2, Gabby Heer 2, Cailyn Cowley 2, and Paige Griffin 1.

“Definitely did not cross my mind”

Morton’s Lady Potters 60, Pekin 40

You have never heard me complain about my seat in the Potterdome. I love the place. I love being on any row anywhere in the building. Ten years now, I’ve watched the Lady Potters and have loved every minute of it. But tonight. Tonight. Ah, sweet night it was.

The first time Maggie Hobson touched the ball, the 5-foot-8 sophomore guard shot it.

I didn’t see that shot.

I had chosen to sit in a place which I should not have chosen.

People walked/climbed/jumped around/on/through me. They were mostly whose ages can be reported in single digits.

The darlings were always on their way somewhere.

Then the sweethearts always came back from wherever they had gone.

As the little dear ones returned and bumped/fell/swirled around me with their soft drinks and popcorn, Maggie Hobson’s shot must have been a very good shot.

I can say that because the public address announcer, Brian Newnan, did his iconic “Threeeeeeee” thing.

So I turned to a man two rows up and said, “Who scored?”

“Maggie,” the man said.

So it was 3-0, Morton, and the undefeated Potters were on their way to their 29th victory (39 in a row counting last season). At 12-0 in the Mid-Illini Conference, they clinched their sixth straight league championship (and now have won 59 straight M-I games). Over the last five seasons and this one, they are 193-13.

At 3-0, Morton, I made a slight adjustment in my seat. I scooched over to close off the lovables’ passageway to the sugar factories. After that, I saw Maggie Hobson do what even she didn’t imagine doing.

A year ago at this time, after a junior varsity game, she climbed into the bleachers, all the way to the top on the side across from the bench, and there she operated the oscillating spotlight that, in the darkened Potterdome, is used to illuminate each of the Potters as they run onto the court in the introductions of starting lineups.

Tonight she was IN the starting lineup.

Someone up there shone a light on her.

Maggie Hobson did not so muchy as dress for a varsity game as a freshman.

If this were Broadway, we’d say she had gone from stagehand to star.

“That definitely did not cross my mind,” she said, smiling at the wonder of what can happen in a year.

After that first shot, I saw Hobson’s next three and they all were excellent shots, two THREEEEE’s and a put-back rebound off a missed free throw.

That first 3 came at 7:35 of the first quarter. The second came at 4:22. The put-back at 3:15. The third 3 at 2:33 giving Morton a 22-5 lead.

A varsity starter in five games now – moving up after Maddy Becker’s knee injury – Hobson had scored 11 points in less than six minutes. It wasn’t the 30 she’d scored in a jayvee game at Limestone last month. It was much better than that.

I asked the obvious: “That first quarter, Maggie, what’d you think?”

“I think it went pretty well.”

“Really. Three 3’s, bang-bang-bang.”

“It was the first game,” she said, “when my shots started to fall.”

“It was great to see the ball go in for her,” the Potters’ coach, Bob Becker, said. He’d been pleased with her hustle and aggressiveness both on defense and rebounding. (She led the team in rebounds her first two starts. She explained: “Coach told me, ‘If you go looking for the ball, the ball will find you.’”) But with Maddy Becker lost for the season, Hobson’s potential as a 3-point shooter was valuable and worth waiting for. The coach said. “Tonight was about building confidence for her, knowing she can knock down shots.”

Anyway, the Potters led at the quarter, 26-3. At the half, 38-12. They led, 50-21 late in the third. After that, lots of ugly commenced.

Wait. You do want a Morton High School pep band review, right?

The pep band was sensational.

When it wasn’t playing, its members were announcing the number of threeeee’s made by the Potters. There were seven in the first half, eight in all.

I paid attention to the band because that p.a. man, Newman, had opened the game with this: “And a shout-out to the pep band’s contra-line.”

Huh?

“Contras are marching tubas,” Newman explained. They’re smaller, hefted on a shoulder. “The tubas that wrap around you, they’re not tubas – they’re sousaphones.”

Darned if I don’t learn something new every day.

Oh, one more thing. Reunion time in the Potterdome.

The first Potters game I ever saw was 12 years ago, Brooke Bisping’s senior year. The Potters had a promising freshman, Erin Tisdale, later a star and now, six years after high school graduation, a Nurse Practitioner in Cleveland.

Her parents, Kurt and Amy, did a wonderful thing tonight. They drove from their home in Iowa to Illinois in order to catch a plane to Florida tomorrow.

“But when we got to Morton,” Kurt said, “we saw there was a game, so we had to come.”

Of course.

Lindsey Dullard led Morton’s scoring tonight with 12. Hobson had her 11. Ten more Potters scored: Courtney Jones 7, Katie Krupa 6, Raquel Frakes 6, Gabby Heer 3, Paige Griffin 3, Makenna Baughman 3, Peyton Dearing 3, Faith Hostetler 2, Olivia Remmert 2, Cailyn Cowley 2.

“Back to normal, finally”

Morton’s Lady Potters 66, Canton 19

“You’ve got 9 seconds,” the coach, Bob Becker, shouted from his spot in front of the Morton bench.

Canton was shooting a free throw with :09.6 showing on the clock.

This was about to become really fun.

The girl made the free throw.

“And we ran ‘flash,’” the Potters’ Raquel Frakes said later.

What happens in “Flash” is that after the free throw the Potters make the in-bounds pass to Frakes.

And Frakes is gone in a . . .

F
L
A
S
H

Coast to coast, end to end, from under one hoop to under the other one, and the only question is:

Who needs a stinkin’ 9 seconds?

Not Frakes. Once a state champion hurdler. Not Frakes. Who hits top speed in a step and a half. Not Frakes. Who on the dribble went past stuck-to-the-floor Canton players who, if they saw anything at all, saw nothing more than a glimpse of Frakes’s ginger ponytail in full flight.

“That,” Becker said later, “was a confident, aggressive attack of the basket.”

“I thought, ‘Whoa!’” Courtney Jones said. “Raquel, the speed demon!”

When Frakes’s layup dropped through, the clock showed :04.9.

Do the math: 4.7 seconds to fly from New York to California.

In the normal run of events, the Frakes bucket wasn’t important. Morton had long since won the game. After a quarter, it led 24-0. At halftime, 43-12. It was 55-19 when Becker stood at his bench and said, “You’ve got 9 seconds.”

But these are not normal times for the Potters. They are now 28-0. They are 11-0 in the Mid-Illini Conference. Their goal is a fifth state championship in six seasons. If they do that, they’re likely to finish with a 38-0 record. To do that, they need Frakes to be what Becker told us she was early this season: “The best sixth man in the entire state.”

Coming off the bench, Frakes changes games. She brings size (5-foot-10) along with that speed and outstanding jumping ability. She can score inside and from the 3-point line. As the leaping centerpiece of the Potters’ “mayhem” press, she intimidates ball-handlers into high, cross-court passes they should never try against defenders knowing that Frakes will cause those terrible passes.

So the Potters are a better team with Frakes than they were without her in the last month as she recovered from a broken left wrist.

“She’s worked really hard to get back,” Jones said. “It’s taken a couple games, it’s a chemistry thing, and she’s good now.”

In five games back, tonight’s was Frakes’s best. Off the bench midway in the first quarter, she quickly became an integral part of the Potters’ defensive domination. By my count, the Potters made 14 steals and/or deflections in the quarter. Frakes had three deflections; she also had a steal for a breakaway layup that made it 19-0.

“I felt back to normal, finally,” she said, meaning back to where she was before the injury. “Even when I first got back into practice, the wrist hurt bad.” What she liked most tonight, she said, was her work at the rim. While she had had no trouble getting shots in the paint, she hurried more of them than she had liked. Tonight Frakes was both quick inside and soft with her hands, giving layups a chance to find their ways off the glass and into the net – or, as she put it, “I knew I had to finish. Now I’m getting there.”

Frakes led Morton’s scoring with 13. Katie Krupa and Lindsey Dullard had 11 (9 in the first quarter). Jones and Sedona McCartney had 7 each. Peyton Dearing had 6, Maggie Hobson 5, and Gabby Heer, Abby Steider, and Cailyn Cowley each had 2.

One more thing.

Update on the Brooke Bisping engagement . . . .

Tommy Rush and the Potters assistant coach have set a date for the wedding – July 4.

I had a question. My very first paying job as a newspaperman caused me to fill in for vacationing staffers at the Lincoln Daily Courier. My first professional words appeared on the society page. I wrote up weddings. So, when Tommy told me tonight that Brooke had already bought her wedding gown, I immediately asked him to describe it.

Which makes me the latest clueless man in this saga. Everyone knows the groom doesn’t see the gown until the day. Everyone knows the bride would never describe it.

“You can say it’s white,” he said.

“And it’s beautiful,” she said.

“Will you marry me?”

Morton’s Lady Potters 66, Metamora 43

During the jayvee game, Brooke Bisping sat alongside Bob Becker. The assistant coach sat alongside the head coach as she had sat alongside him a hundred other times. Just casually. Leaning toward him, as if to better hear what he had to say. She let her left hand dangle across her right wrist. Occasionally, she lifted that left hand toward the coach. One time she made a fist with that left hand and punched the air in front of the coach’s face.

As Bisping moved her left hand to and fro, a light seemed to flash from that hand.

A glint. A sparkle. You might even call it a diamond’s twinkle.

From two rows behind Bisping and Becker, I recognized the source of that light. Here I violated several journalistic stay-out-of-the-story rules by suggesting to Bisping, with a gesture or two, that she stand in front of Becker and use her left hand to scratch her nose with the ring finger of that hand.

She did that. Her face was alight with joy. Such fun she was having.

And here’s what Becker did in response.

He scratched his own nose.

He thought to brush away whatever Bisping had seen there.

So she did it again, the scratching thing. Only this time she moved from scratching to waving the ring finger in the light, and now Becker, finally pulled out of his basketball bubble, saw Bisping’s fingers moving and he saw the twinkle and he understood what it meant and he laughed out loud. Then, more loudly yet, and in agreement with every woman who has ever considered men clueless, the coach said, “I’M AN IDIOT!”

After which he rushed to embrace Bisping, and what a wonderful moment that was, 16 years after the freshman Brooke Bisping became a rising star on the first of Becker’s dominant Lady Potters’ teams, ultimately the leading scorer in Potters history and now Becker’s assistant on four state championship teams.

“Nothing real dramatic,” Tommy Rush said. “We’d been watching ‘Star Wars’ on TV.” He is a resident physician in radiology at OSF Hospital in Peoria. For most of three years now, he and Bisping have been a couple. “I took the ring out and said, ‘Will you marry me?’ She said, ‘Are you proposing?’ I said, ‘Yes,’ and she said, ‘Yes, yes, yes.’”

We’ll get back to the ring at the end of this, but this is a basketball blog, after all, and we ought to talk about basketball a little, although the Potters did to Metamora tonight what they’ve done to most everybody all season. Allowing nothing on defense, doing everything on offense, they ran up a big lead early, 21-6. When Metamora thought to rally late, the Potters ran away and hid; in the fourth quarter, they stretched a 10-point lead to 27 points in 4 minutes and 8 seconds of play.

Let’s go there. Metamora came in with a 17-5 record, 7-3 in the Mid-Illini Conference. It might have thought it had a chance tonight when it outscored Morton 9-2 in two minutes and trailed only 47-37. But, really. Metamora had no chance. It had scored four cheap-o buckets in the last minute of the third quarter and early in the fourth – just enough to get the Lady Potters’ attention back on the task at hand.

And there they went on a 19-2 run.

Lindsey Dullard, playing with four fouls, slashed to the rim for two….Peyton Dearing, a demon on defense, perhaps subjecting Metamora’s poor, poor point guard to nightmares for the rest of February – “I give her an A+, Peyton’s the best on-the-ball defender I’ve seen,” Becker said – and she can play with the ball as well, following Dullard’s layyup with a 3 from the deep right corner.

Katie Krupa ran the score to 54-37 with two free throws, then her fellow sophomore, Maggie Hobson, knocked in a 3 and layup off a
Courtney Jones pass in the paint….Dearing followed with a second 3, her third of the game….Jones dropped in a mid-range jumper .. . and Dearing carried a Dullard pass in for a fast-break two.

Suddenly, but in no surprise, it was 66-39.

And Morton now is 27-0, on a 37-game winning streak reaching into last season. And it is 10-0 in the Mid-Illini Conference, on a 57-game winning streak there. And in the last five seasons and this one so far, Morton is 191-13. (Causing me to tell a friend the Potters are “the UConn of the heartland.” Sort of, anyway. In the same time period, UConn is 198-7. Close enough for me.)

Back to the twinkling ring . . . .

In the locker room afterwards, as the coach, Becker, reviewed the game, senior forward Makenna Baughman noticed a glint, a sparkle, a flash of diamond’s light on the left hand of the assistant coach, Bisping, and Baughman, being a young woman and not a clueless man, immediately whispered to Olivia Remmert, another senior, “Is that an engagement ring on Brooke’s hand?”

Which caused Remmert to take one look and shout, “OH, MY GOODNESS!”

That was the end of the Becker review because Remmert bounced over to Bisping, raised her hand high for all to see, and there ensued such a hullabaloo of celebration that when Bisping later returned to Tommy Rush’s side, she said, “THEY WERE ALL SCREAMING…and I think I’m deaf now.”

Dearing led Morton’s scoring with 15, Dullard had 14, Jones 13. Krupa amd Hobson had 8 each,. Raquel Frakes 6, and Remmert 2.

“Really talking and flying around”

Morton’s Lady Potters 64, Washington 43

Before the game began, the Potters were behind, 1-0, and it was 1-0 only because the Washington free throw shooter missed her first one. On Pink Night, the Potters had been charged with a technical foul. T’s are usually dished out to coaches for bad behavior featuring four-letter words. It was, in fact, a four-letter word that got the Potters in trouble.

The word was pink.

“Do you have the letter saying you can wear pink?” a referee had asked the Morton coach, Bob Becker, during the pre-game meeting of captains and referees.

Becker said, “Huh?” The coach’s reply may have lacked eloquence. But it was filled with perspective and a quiet, burning indignation. In Becker’s 21 seasons as the Potters’ coach, his teams have always come to Pink Night wearing pink uniforms. And never did a referee T’up the Potters.

“How long’s that been a rule?” Becker asked, no answer forthcoming other than, well, it’s a rule.

At some indeterminate time – Becker plans to find out when – the Illinois High School Association bureaucrats did what bureaucrats often do. One day they had no real work. So they created a rule that if you wanted to wear a pink uniform, you had to get IHSA permission.

I suppose there’s good reason for that. Maybe a road team wearing red confuses a color-blind zebra. But, really. Let’s be grown-ups here. Pink Night is a celebration of the courage we need to face cancer. On Pink Night in the Potterdome, Becker’s players climb into the bleachers to deliver pink roses to survivors of cancer. What a beautiful thing on this night to see a Potter in her pink uniform, the junior Raquel Frakes, go running – running with a rose in her hand! – to the top of the bleachers to make a man smile. You want to know what beauty is? Every year we see it on Pink Night. Beauty is that video of Mary Schultz. Once the Team Mom, mother of two Potters, we see her again and we hear her singing the national anthem in the last year of her life.

And we’re worried that the Potters wore pink?

It’s a technical foul?

Hell, it oughta be a law that every home team wears pink on Pink Night.

I feel better already.

Now, back to the game . . .

Washington’s 1-0 lead lasted all of one minute and 14 seconds. It lasted until Katie Krupa’s two free throws. About four minutes later, Morton led, 12-1. At halftime, it was 25-9. Once again, the obvious was unavoidable: Morton is just too good for everyone in the Mid-Illini Conference. Washington came in with an 18-4 record, 7-2 in the league. Those are nice numbers except that Morton came in 25-0 and 8-0 (with a 55-game winning M-I streak).

The game became interesting for about four minutes in the third quarter. Washington suddenly broke free for layup after layup, some on set plays but more than one when it out-ran Potters for fast-break layups.

Nothing bothers a basketball coach more than opponents going coast-to-coast for uncontested layups. The Potters still had a comfortable lead at 36-21 midway in the third period. (Thanks mostly to Peyton Dearing’s three 3-pointers in three straight possessions.) But Washington, after scoring only the 9 first-half points, had scored 12 in four minutes of the third.

So Bob Becker called a timeout. During the timeout, the coach’s body language was such that I made a note: “3:53, M time, BB HOT.”

“I told them they were blowing assignments,” he said later. “We needed to refocus and regroup.”

That, they did.

Dearing recalled the coach as mild-mannered and cool. “He told us we knew what to do, we’d figure it out,” the senior guard said.

That, they also did.

After the timeout, Morton outscored Washington, 11-6, with Lindsey Dullard scoring the last nine of those points. At 47-27, the Potters coasted into the last quarter. One 17-3 run left Washington gasping for breath, literally worn out, trailing 55-30 and reduced to throwing up prayers, most of them unanswered.

Ah, speaking of Lindsey Dullard – the team’s leading scorer returned to action after missing five games with a concussion. She played as boldly as ever, slashing to the basket and unrelenting on defense. Eleven of her 15 points came in the third quarter.

“I feel really good,” Dullard said afterwards. “I felt good at practice yesterday, the first time I’d been allowed contact, and I felt good tonight.” As for the Potters defense — sensational, save for those few third-quarter minutes — Dullard said, “We were really talking and flying around,”

Dullard and Dearing both had 15 points. Krupa had 13, Courtney Jones 8. Frakes, in her second game back after a month out with a broken wrist, had 7 points, the left-hander’s last two coming on a curling finish in the paint with her right hand. Olivia Remmert, Makenna Baughman, and Abby Steider had 2 points each.

“Competitive fire second to none”

Morton’s Lady Potters 45, Rock Island 33

What to say about Courtney Jones?

Let’s go to the notebook.

“CT long pass off RE of 3”

“CT 3l”

“CT 8’ stumbling”

“CT 3r”

“CT steals x-ct pass”

“CT lu”

“CT blox 3”

“CT 9 of 12 in 4th”

Some translation may be necessary. CT is short for Court, short for Courtney. RE is rebound, 3 is a 3-point shot, l is the left side, 8’ is distance of shot, r is right, lu is layup, x-ct is cross-court, blox is blocks.

Sorry to put the dear reader through that code work. But it’s necessary to show as quickly as possible that Courtney Jones did some of everything all night long in a game that was up for grabs until Jones grabbed it in the fourth quarter.

Everywhere you looked, everywhere the ball went, there was Courtney Jones flying. “She was all over the entire 84 feet by 50 feet,” coach Bob Becker said. Yea, verily, the Potters 5-foot-7 senior point guard gave a master class in How to Play the Game. On defense, she was stealth weaponized – deflecting passes, forcing bad passes, seeming to know before Rock Island knew where it would next throw the ball. Offensively it’s Jones’s job, which she does exceptionally well, to control her team’s pace and movement. On this night, she also led the team’s scoring with 16 – the most important 9 coming in the fourth quarter, all coming after Rock Island had moved within four at 33-29 with 6:05 to play. That this was a game should have been no surprise.

Rock Island came to Morton having won 19 games, their last nine in a row. The Rocks came to town ranked 11th in the Class 3A poll. They came with a proud basketball history. These people were not cupcakes of the sort that would fall to crumbs, even against the Potters, ranked No. 1 and winners of 24 straight.

Four points, 6:05 to play.

The ball found Jones deep in the right corner.

She had a thought that she explained later.

“I thought I better shoot it,” she said, “or I’d get yelled at.”

The yeller-in-chief is Becker, who, yelling at Jones from time to time, had suggested/ordered/tough-love-coached-her-up to shoot anytime she had a good look.

The time had come.

BANG!

As tenuous as a 4-point lead feels, somehow a 7-point lead in the fourth quarter feels like . . .

“You breathing again?” assistant coach Bill Davis later asked the notekeeper in the row behind the bench.

“Started at 3:50,” I said, noting a time that Raquel Frakes – welcome back, Raquel – made a nifty entry pass to Katie Krupa for a layup and the Potters’ second 7-point lead, a lead that soon grew to 11 with a minute and a half to play.

Breathing, it felt so good.

It hadn’t happened much since the first 3 ½ minutes of the game. Early on, Morton was as good as Morton gets. It ran off to a 14-0 lead. Working nicely in the paint, Krupa scored the game’s first nine points, the last two off that long Jones pass out of a rebound. Then Jones added a 3 from the left side and a put-back of her own missed layup.

It was 14-4 at the quarter, 22-16 at the half, 33-27 after three.

Rock Island kept it close with man-to-man defense so aggressive – hands clawing, bodies bumping – that Morton found it difficult to run any offense smoothly. Even the usually indefatigable Jones said, “It was one of the most up-in-you games ever. I’ve never been that tired in any game.”

Jones’s tour de force tonight was not her first in the last month, or even her best in the last month, but it may have been the most important in showing the Potters they can “find a way” – to quote Becker’s coaching mantra – to win against good teams no matter the circumstances. Tonight Maddy Becker did not play – that knee. Lindsey Dullard did not play – she returns next Tuesday. Raquel Frakes played for the first time in a month and profited from her time in the fire again.

So I said to Jones, “You’ve been so good lately,” and then I began taking notes furiously, which is to say I took notes that are now unreadable, because when Jones starts talking, she talks really really fast, so it comes out looking like….

“Itsallthoseyearsplayinginpractice . . . .”

Got that, dear reader?

“….playingagainstgreatplayerslikeBrandiBispingJosiBeckerTenleyDowell . . .”

Still with us?

“…andifIhadntplayedagainstgreatplayerslikethatIwouldntbetheplayerIam…”

Here, she smiled. Here, Jones stopped talking. She stopped talking to say that she had just heard what she said.

“Hey, that’s a good quote,” she said. “I should say that slower.”

And she did.

“If I hadn’t played against great players like that,” she said, “I wouldn’t be the player I am.”

So I go to the yeller-in-chief again to inquire about the wonderful Ms. Jones.

“What a motor,” Becker said. “Courtney’s not a flip-switcher who turns it on and off. It’s never off. She has a competitive fire second to none.”

And, gee, she talks fast.

“She does EVERYTHING fast,” the coach said. “More than once, she has gone to her car, turned on the ignition, and realized she had to come back inside. She just left the car running and went back out.”

Becker laughed. “True story,” he said, as if anyone had reason to disbelieve it.

Jones had her 16 points. Krupa had 15, Peyton Dearing 8, Olivia Remmert 3, and Maggie Hobson 3.

“Oh, say can you see by the dawn’s . . .”

Morton’s Lady Potters 73, East Peoria 29

Not much of a game because, for reasons unknown, Morton always has the better athletes better prepared to play high-level basketball. With seven Potters scoring, it was 28-3 after a quarter. Against Morton’s unrelenting full-court trapping defense, East Peoria made 15 trips down-court before getting off a shot. Now the Potters are 24-0, East Peoria 3-18. But I digress.

Let’s get back to the national anthem.

With players, coaches, and officials lined up, the public address announcer asked everyone in the East Peoria High School gymnasium to stand, face the flag, and honor America during the playing of the national anthem.

We stood.

We waited for the music.

Music?

No music.

We waited some more.

Then someone whose voice sounded like mine said, “We’re ready.”

Silence.

Until this happened.

We all started singing.

The Star Spangled Banner, done a cappella by a couiple hundred people in from a snowstorm.

Not that we raised the roof with our mighty voices. Not that anyone was on key. It wasn’t even that we all remembered the words exactly, though we did start well: “Oh, say can you see by the dawn’s early light . . . ”

Still, beautiful.

The p.a. man said, “Good job, fans,” and we gave ourselves a round of applause, and finally we sat down to watch the undefeated, No. 1-ranked, defending state champion Lady Potters win their 34th straight game over two seasons and their 55th straight in the Mid-Illini Conference (8-0 this season and likely en route to their sixth straight M-I title, the last four with 14-0 records).

It didn’t take long to notice a trend in this one.

Morton scored at will, East Peoria never scored.

It was 20-0 at 3:20 of the first quarter.

Morton’s scoring in that run: a Courtney Jones rebound, a Maggie Hobson 3 (in the sophomore’s first varsity start), a Katie Krupa fast-break layup, another Krupa layup, a Peyton Dearing 3 (the East Peoria transfer!), a Jones 3, an Olivia Remmert layup, and a Krupa rebound-and-one.

Do that for 32 minutes and the score is about 140-0.

Soon enough, it was 43-6 and I had made one note worth repeating here.

**“EP 5 air-balls in one possession. A record?”

(It started with an air-ball 3 caught and thrown back wildly over the hoop where, three times, battling East Peorians snared rebounds and flung the rock high and in the direction of the basket, injuring only the airspace above the iron.)

It was 62-22 after three quarters when I thought to do the first in-game interview in my hundred years doing this work. Three of the Potters’ stars – Lindsey Dullard, Maddy Becker, Raquel Frakes – had chosen to sit together on the team bench, though none would play, all injured.

When Dullard came to the bench after the third-quarter break, I asked, “How’s the headache?” An all-stater and the team’s leading scorer, Dullard has missed four games with a concussion. She had been told she would be re-evaluated once her symptoms were gone, the primary symptom being headaches.

“It’s OK,” Dullard said. “A little bit, still.” She held a finger a touch away from her thumb. “But OK.”

Earlier, I had asked Maddy Becker about her right knee, injured two days before.

With crutches beside her, Becker sat on the second row of bleachers during the jayvee game. She had an ice pack on her knee – she suffered an ACL tear in the left knee last February – and did not yet know the extent of this new injury.

“It’s still real swollen and hurts,” she said.

Her coach and father, Bob Becker, said 1) x-rays had revealed no bone damage, 2) an orthopedist’s hands-on examination was inconclusive, and 3) results of an MRI test are due to be delivered Friday morning. “It still could be an ACL or miniscus,” Becker said.

There’s another possibility, too, Maddy Becker said: “It could be a bone bruise.”

While preferable to ligament damage necessitating surgery, a deep bone bruise might sideline Becker for a month, by which time the Potters would be starting state tournament play.

“We’ll know more in the morning,” Bob Becker said tonight, “when the doctor reads the MRI.”

As for Frakes, whose broken left wrist has kept her out for two weeks, she will return Saturday night when the Potters play at home against Rock Island.

Is she ready?

“Soooo ready,” she said.

Wait.

More good news.

On the way into the night’s snowstorm, I first passed by Lindsey Dullard, who elaborated on her condition. Turns out, as we say in the news business, she had buried the lead during our in-game conversation.

“I’ve been cleared to practice tomorrow,” she said. “No contact, but okay’d on running and shooting. If all goes well, I’ll play next Tuesday.”

That’s a game in the Potterdome against Washington.

Dearing led Morton’s scoring tonight with 15. Krupa had 13, Jones and Cailyn Cowley 9 each, Remmert 8, Hobson 6, Abby Steider 4, and with 3 apiece Faith Hostetler, Claire Reiman, and Makenna Baughman.