“Control our destiny”

Morton’s Lady Potters 51, East Peoria 36

Because Tiger Woods injured himself badly in an auto accident this morning in California, I put on my golf writer cap today. (Column on Golfdigest.com.) As to what happened in East Peoria’s gym tonight, I confess to being so busy with Tiger that I didn’t catch the EP live stream until it was 15-3, Morton.

Soon enough it was 30-7, about what’s to be expected when one team is 6-2 in the Mid-Illini Conference and the other is 1-7. Of Morton’s 13 players, 12 scored. East Peoria made six 3-pointers in the second half and cut Morton’s lead to 47-36 with 2:20 to play. Not to say the Potters got nervous, but coach Bob Becker did send in starter Katie Krupa to steady the ship.

Becker later said, “We played our bench liberally. Some nice execution, but at times it could have been much better.” Looking ahead to M-I games against East Peoria (Thursday at 6 p.m. in the Potterdome) and two with Limestone before finishing with two against first-place Dunlap, the coach said, “We are in control of our
own destiny as far as conference. We win five more we will earn the title. We hope to keep improving and be 1-0 after our next game on Thursday.”

Krupa led Morton’s scoring tonight with 14. Raquel Frakes had 9, Graci Junis 6, Paige Chapin 4, Cailyn Cowley and Maggie Hobson 3 each. With 2 apiece: Paige Griffin Faith Hostetler, Sedona McCartney, Abbey Pollard, Gaby Heer, and Addy Engel.

“Find a way, make a way”

Morton’s Lady Potters 36, Metamora 31

“First 6 possessions are turnovers.” So read the dispatch from my far-flung correspondent in Metamora. A second or two later, this: “Correction. 7 now. Gracious be.” Then an air ball, worse than a turnover. By my count, the first 10 times the Potters came to the offensive end, they got zip, zilch, nada, nothin’ done. Gracious be? No. This called for a holy jumpin’ Jehoshaphat!

So Metamora led after a quarter, 7-1. As bad as that sounds, the reality was worse. Counting the second half of Thursday night’s victory at Morton, the Potters had played three consecutive quarters against Metamora in which they had scored 4 points, 2 points, and 1.

At halftime today, ahead 19-15, the Metamorans came back to the court quickly, warmed up some, put up a few shots to kill time. They had reason to be comfortable. Meanwhile, the Potters were still in the locker room. They came onto the court only in the last seconds. No warming up. No shooting around. Their late entrance was intriguing. Watching by PC from home, I wondered what coach Bob Becker might have said at halftime that took so long?

Nothing, really. He answered by text on the bus ride back to Morton: “Chance to regroup and refocus. No yelling. Our first-half warm-up was done and it was another opportunity the 2d half. Cut down turnovers. Stay poised and composed. After all, we were only down 4.”

Becker believes the first three minutes of any second half are critical. In this one, his Potters wasted no time. The first trip, Maggie Hobson made a 3-pointer from 10 o’clock on the arc. The Metamora lead, once eight points, was one. As small as all the people in gray road uniforms looked on my PC, their body language said it was their time.

The first take-charge moment came on a Katie Krupa spin move and long-stepping drive down the right side of the lane through traffic. Just when she seemed lost to sight, she reappeared on the low block putting up an underhand toss that touched the board softly and fell in.

Next, Hobson scored, and I wish I could tell you how she did it, but she disappeared in the dark live-streaming shadows under Morton’s basket. Anyway, invisible or not, it still counted two points and gave Morton the lead for the first time at 22-21. It never again trailed. After the “Gracious be” start left them behind, 9-1, the Potters outscored Metamora 35-22.

It did that good work two ways. On offense: Krupa, despite being grabbed, bullied, and bounced around by Metamora’s defenders, worked without rest inside; and Hobson relieved some of that interior pressure by making three 3-pointers. More important, defense again won this one for Morton. This time, for instance, it was Metamora, in the critical third quarter, that could score only four points against an array of defenses that included the rare box-and-one with pestiferous Paige Griffin assigned to pester Metamora’s best shooter.

“Find a way, make a way,” Becker said. “I love the growth we’ve made growing and connecting as a team. Fastest way to build this connection is at the defensive end. We hung tough., persevered, earned the sweep, and another W! Lots of big moments.”

Hobson led Morton’s scoring with 16 and Krupa had 15. Griffin and Raquel Frakes had 2 each, Addy Engel 1.

Morton is now 6-2 in the Mid-Illini Conference, Metamora 6-3. The Potters next play Tuesday night at home against East Peoria (1-7).

“Win on defense”

Morton’s Lady Potters 27, Metamora 24

When’s the last time the Lady Potters won a close game against a good team by scoring two points – count ‘em, 1, 2 – in the fourth quarter and those two came on an in-bounds play designed by an assistant coach who retired a year ago to his day job as a mailman?

Hearing the question, the Potters’ coach, Bob Becker, said, “Ummm.” There came a furrow to his delicate brow. And he said, “Uhhh.”

The question was designed to elicit murmurs of not-in-my-lifetime-or-yours because the man asking the question knew he’d for sure never seen it happen. Finally, Becker, in his 21st season, said, “Maybe in a running-clock game, like against Chicago Hope…”

He meant the Potters may have scored two points in the fourth quarter of a running-clock 59-point victory. Tonight’s victory wasn’t one of that kind. This one left you with nerves all a-jangle.

It was the kind where those two points were two more than the Potters had scored in the previous 7 ½ minutes of play. Those two may have been more than they expected to score at all against a strong and relentlessly aggressive Metamora defense that had produced six victories in seven Mid-Illini Conference games.

The two points came with a minute and 36 seconds to play. And they came after the Potters already had failed on the first in-bounds play; a referee’s count was within a second of giving the ball to Metamora. Only a quick timeout call by Becker gave the Potters a second chance. This time they tried a play called “Big D” in honor of the long-time assistant coach Bill Davis.

With the ball on the left half of the baseline under her own basket, Katie Krupa needed only two seconds this time to drop a little pass to the slashing Maggie Hobson on the right-side low block.

Hobson’s layup was the Potters’ only fourth-quarter basket and only their third in the six-point second half of a game dominated by defense.

Up 21-13 at halftime, Morton certainly needed its assortment of defenses – mostly man-to-man with match-up zones mixed in – to hang on to a 25-24 lead at that 1:38 mark. And after Hobson’s layup, Morton’s defense survived furious attack by Metamora’s long-range shooters. They’d made three 3-pointers and then, forced outside the arc by Morton’s defenders, had no alternative other than to keep flinging the rock at the hoop from afar. Metamora’s desperation produced no success.

“It’s always great,” Becker said, “to win on the defensive end,” a summary that followed the coach leading his team in a giddy locker-room celebration “dance,” dance in air quotes because no one could clearly explain what dance the “dance” was, though it resembled something done by folks in cowboy hats in dimly lit places with sawdust on the floor. Call it the Pandemic Potter Two-Step.

Morton, now 5-2 in the Mid-Illini, goes to Metamora for a Saturday afternoon rematch.

Krupa led Morton’s scoring with 10, Hobson had 9, Raquel Frakes 6, and Paige Griffin 2.

“ Even my Mom thought…”

Morton’s Lady Potters 45, Washington 37

Suddenly, it was last year. Suddenly, Raquel Frakes stole a ball near midcourt and sprinted away. The solo fast break came late in the third quarter and didn’t win the game right there. But it won the game because, suddenly, this much was clear: Frakes was back.

Her season a year ago ended with surgery on the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee. She began this Covid-abbreviated season insisting she was completely recovered. Well, maybe. No maybes tonight. Tonight she didn’t wear the knee sleeve that had been there for, oh, y’know, peace of mind. Tonight she just did Raquel Frakes things.

Like, the steal. Just took the ball out of somebody’s hands. And a dozen steps later, outrunning two defenders to the hoop, she curled in a layup that gave the Lady Potters their biggest lead of the game, 34-28, with 2:34 left in the quarter. I made a note: “Over. Nobody gonna catch her.”

Two minutes later, driving from the right side, the left-hander put up a running 4-footer – right-handed! – so softly that it danced on the rim for a second or two before deciding to fall in. It gave Morton a 36-30 lead going into the fourth quarter. Washington moved within three points once, but Morton won with a 9-4 run in the last six minutes.

The victory did more than even the score between the teams. Washington had beaten Morton 46-37 Saturday afternoon. That defeat, coming after a loss at Pekin, put the Lady Potters on the brink of a three-game losing streak – this for a program that over the last six years has not lost as many as three games in a SEASON. “Maybe we lost three in a row that year we went into the regional with a losing record,” coach Bob Becker said. That was the 2009-10 season when the Potters lost 11 of 13 games in one stretch but finished 18-16 with a regional championship. Since then, Morton has not lost more than six games in any season.

Washington led early and often in this one, but last with a minute to play in the first half – which is when Morton’s two red-headed left-handers took over. First, freshman Addy Engel made her second 3-pointer of the half to tie it at 19-all, then Frakes, a senior, made two free throws for a 21-19 lead that the Potters never gave up.

Let’s pause here. Let me say I have seen many basketball games. Until tonight I had never seen a game starring two red-headed left-handers who scored 28 points and helped their team avoid its first three-game losing streak in, like, forever.
Frakes has heard about the resemblance with Engel. “Even my mom thought Addy was ME,” she said, and Engel said, “Yes, people think I’m Raquel’s sister.” They well may be basketball twins, both about 5-foot-9, both starters this season, both instrumental in the turn-around from Saturday’s defeat – and both serving notice quickly tonight.

Fewer than 30 seconds into the game, Engel made a 3-pointer from the the left side. A minute later, Frakes followed with her own 3-pointer. And Morton, which had trailed Washington 12-1 in the early going Saturday, had an early 6-3 lead that set the tone for tonight’s goings-on. Engel would make three 3-pointers, and Frakes would score every way she has ever scored, mostly on slashing drives and soft finishes at the rim with either hand.

As Engel had started the game with a 3, she started the Potters’ fourth quarter with a 3 that was more important. Washington had made a 3 to move with 36-33, suggesting a threat coming, but Engel’s 3 a half-minute later was a convincing no-no-not-tonight answer to that suggestion.

Frakes led Morton’s scoring with 19, Engel had 9. Katie Krupa and Maggie Hobson had 6 apiece, Paige Griffin and Sedona McCartney had 2 each, and Cailyn Cowley 1. Now 4-2 for the season, Morton is host to Metamora Thursday night.

“A 15-point lead!”

Washington 46, Morton’s Lady Potters 37

Again forced to watch from afar, meaning from home with my dog KO, your techno-bumbling reporter begins with three confessions:

1) I missed the first half entirely, 2) the streaming video finally arrived as a blur out here in the woods, and 3) the Lady Potters, already blurry, were so tiny on my PC monitor that I couldn’t tell Katie Krupa from stars of yore, say Peyton Dearing, or even Brooke Bisping, somehow young again.

So I have no idea what happened this afternoon. Just that it was not good for the Potters. There’d be a red road-uniform Morton blur mixing into a white home-uniform Washington blur until suddenly both blurs were, for an unknown reason, running the other way.  The scoreboard told me the white blurs succeeded in scoring more often than the red blurs, though I never saw a ball go through a hoop at either end, the hoops lost in shadows.

Soon enough, the white home-uniform blurs had stretched a 27-17 halftime lead to 36-21 late in the third. That’s when a play-by-play broadcaster from the hometown video crew said, “The Panthers are putting up a tough defense against the Lady Potters offense.” Washington’s tough defense amounted to two and three defenders harassing Krupa anytime she had the ball. Still, with relentless purpose, Krupa scored 25 points. Problem was, the rest of the Potters accounted for only a dozen. No one wins many games that way.

At that 36-21 spot, an announcer’s voice went up an octave. “A 15-point lead,” he said, and, in case his voice didn’t reach Morton and its surroundings, he raised the pitch another notch, “A 15-point lead!” He could not be blamed for the long-suppressed bursts of excitement. It had been seven years (and 13 losses) since Washington last defeated Morton
On an 11-2 run with Krupa scoring 8 points, the Potters closed within 38-32 with 4:13 to play. From there, though, they couldn’t score again until the game’s last minute.

Morton had won 64 straight games in the Mid-Illini Conference before Thursday night’s loss at Pekin. It plays Washington again Tuesday night in the Potterdome.

Krupa’s 25 came on nine field goals (one a late 3-pointer) and six free throws. Addy Engel had 5 points, Raquel Frakes 3, and Maggie Hobson and Cailyn Crowley had 2 apiece.

“She’s getting pretty beat up”

Pekin 42, Morton’s Lady Potters 38

Close all the way. Pekin by four after a quarter, then Morton up by five. It was 33-apiece with 4:50 to play. And then . . .?

Well. Only local folks were allowed in Pekin’s Dawdy Hawkins Gym tonight (a Mid-Illini Conference rule in these Covid times). And the techno-genius in me was unable to connect to the video streaming of the game.

What little I know came from dispatches filed by correspondents dragooned for the night. One was a friend in Morton, another in Pekin, and a third worked from high above West 108th Street in New York City (whose last text read, sadly, “And the band plays the Dragons song”).

A consensus: the Potters, now 2-1, could get nothing done offensively against the Dragons, now 1-3. They scored only five points in the decisive fourth quarter.

Just guessing, but the way Pekin played Morton two nights ago (while losing 44-28), the Dragons must have closed down hard on the Potters’ best scorer, Katie Krupa. (A text: “She’s getting pretty beat up.”) Then Pekin could dare anyone else to shoot. In both Pekin-Morton games, only four Potters scored.

The defeat ended Morton’s 64-game winning streak in the Mid-Illini. The Potters last lost to a M-I team, East Peoria, on January 22, 2016. Six weeks later, those Potters won the first of the program’s four state 3A championships. Nothing so nice will follow this defeat; the virus has shut down state tournaments. Morton’s season ends with a conference tournament March 11-13.

Maggie Hobson led Morton’s scorers tonight with 13. Krupa and freshman Addy Engel had 11 apiece. Raquel Frakes had 3.

The Potters get back on the horse at 12:30 Saturday afternoon at Washington.

“Shooters Shoot”

Morton’s Lady Potters 44, Pekin 28

Here’s what Maggie Hobson does when she misses a 3-point try from the right side. She moves to the top of the key where a rebounder gives her the ball again. With no hesitation, she misses her second 3 in five seconds. All in the first minute of tonight’s game at the Potterdome.

“I started pretty bad,” she said later.

Then came an airball on her third 3. Jerked it way left.

“A lot of it is in my head,” she said.

So she’s 0-for-3 from outside and the first time she touches the ball in the second quarter, what does she do? Does she get rid of it before she’s tempted to shoot again?

Not on your life.

From 10 o’clock on the right arc, bang!

Next touch a minute later, at high noon, BANG!

“I kept shooting,” she said, “because Coach has confidence in me,” and the coach, Bob Becker, said, “Shooters shoot.” Two misses in five seconds followed by an airball? Not to worry, Becker said. “Maggie’s got a definite green light.”

By game’s end, the junior guard had made 5 3’s and scored 17 points as the Potters moved to 3-0 in this virus-abbreviated season. Reaching into the last five Mid-Illini Conference games five seasons ago, Morton now has won 64 straight league games. (The 65th is likely Thursday night at Pekin.)

Save for Hobson’s shooting and Katie Krupa’s relentless work inside (which earned her 19 points), the Potters did little offensively to please the 38 ½ family members who accepted invitations to the game. (My halftime census included an infant in arms. If it weren’t my new book she brought to the game, I’d remark on a woman seen bringing a new book to the game.)

But the offensive problems didn’t much concern Becker, who saw what he has always liked best: defensive work so persistent that it can produce victory even on nights when shooting-shooters go 0-for-forever. Becker ran gimmick defenses all night – trapping zone, box-and-one, full-court press – that gave Pekin no oxygen in the fourth quarter when it most needed it.

“We won it at the defensive end,” Becker said. The Potters lead was only 27-22 with little over a quarter to play. From then on, Pekin scored only two field goals, both of the desperation 3-point kind, as Morton went on a close-it-out 17-6 run that included the game’s last eight points.

Krupa’s 19 points led Morton, with Hobson at 17. Raquel Frakes had 4 and so did Paige Griffin, who got hers on late-game back-to-back steals that sealed the deal. Maria Lopko was among the Potters who did not score, but her pre-game delivery of Milk Duds pleased the new author. (Have I mentioned my book?)

“Cheryl’s fabulous recipe, revealed”.

Morton’s Lady Potters 37, Canton 25

Eight days short of a year, the Lady Potters returned to the Potterdome this afternoon. They last played at home February 14, 2020. Their subsequent run at an undefeated season ended in a one-point loss on the winner’s last shot with 2.5 seconds to play in the state championship game on March 7.

Then came the virus and masks and social distancing and remote learning and telecommuting and a world of pain and death.

So, with the virus making the rules, there were only 37 people in the bleachers today. I counted ‘em at halftime. It was a downbeat homecoming. As it turned out, with 1:18 left in the first half, the Potters had enough points to win without scoring again. Katie Krupa had converted a long Raquel Frakes pass into a three-point play to give the Potters a 27-6 lead over the same team they’d had down 27-5 the night before.

The meaning was clear. One team was much the best. Also, it was time for wise guys to crack jokes, such as, “What we going to talk about in the second half, RECIPES?” WeIl, when I got home, I rummaged through Cheryl’s recipe box and found her fabulous Mexican lasagna recipe, which, for all I know, may be a routine Mexican lasagna recipe but, when she made it, it was fabulous Mexican lasagna. Trust me.

Anyway, the Krupa three-point play came late in a 19-0 run that gave the Potters a 33-6 lead. Krupa did the best work with Frakes her wingman. Paige Griffin made a 3-pointer. Addy Engel, a starter as a freshman, scored on a fast break.

The last 12 minutes, with the starters on the bench, the Potters were outscored, 19-4, even as they recorded a 63d straight victory in the Mid-Illini Conference.

Krupa played less than a half and led Morton’s scoring with 15. Frakes had 13. Maggie Hobson and Griffin each had 3, with 2 each by Engel and Faith Hostetler (who climbed only three rows this time to deliver Milk Duds).

An odd thing. At 2:22 this morning. I woke up to add this postscript.

This is the strangest, darkest, most unsettling of years. We have lost so much that was so long familiar. Then the Potters gave us a gift. They played a game. We had not seen them for 333 days. More important, THEY played a game. They had practiced together for less than a  week. At last, they had a chance to become a team.

Now they’re 2-0 with a dozen games to play and it’ll be fun to see them create their own identity in a year of enforced isolation and remote learning and no games and no practice.

So at 2:22 I decided to make a couple edits to the game story. They’re not changes of fact but of tone. Yesterday’s words didn’t fit the joy that high school athletes feel when every trip down the court is a trip toward possibility, joy in these days so long without joy.

“He’s a smart coach”.

Morton’s Lady Potters 45, Canton 32

At 7:19 p.m. tonight, the Potters’ point guard, Katie Krupa, idled near the top of the key before starting the ball in motion to the left side. Before you knew it, she was taking a pass on the right side and moving with the ball into …


Point guard?

Katie Krupa?

Krupa, the 6-foot-2 junior, the Potters’ big’un in the paint the last two seasons?

Yes, point guard Katie Krupa was moving with the ball across the lane at some speed when she looked up and saw the problem . . .

She’d put herself in an awkward spot, going up even as she floated past the hoop. It seemed too late to put up a decent shot. Too awkward, for sure, the rim now behind her chosen flight path. Big’uns who are freshmen or sophomores clang that one off the iron. But Katie Krupa, junior point guard, knew where she was and what to do. Awkward became graceful. A 5-footer, softly. I made a note: “Pretty. Athletic.”

It’d be fun to see what this team would do in a normal year. Give it 35 games, it might belong in the company of Morton’s last six teams – teams that won four state 3A championships, finished second another time, and went 201-14. We’ll have to be content in this abbreviated Covid-19 season, with no state tournaments, to see if this team can do what it suggested tonight it could do – go undefeated in 14 Mid-Illini Conference games for a fifth straight season..

Certainly, Canton was no problem. Morton was dominant at both ends. It was 21-3 after a quarter, with Maggie Hobson making two 3-pointers, Krupa scoring twice in close (nice work from the point, eh?), and Raquel Frakes persisting inside on drives and rebounds for four free throws (nice work after ACL surgery, eh?) The lead was 31-5 at halftime and it wasn’t that close.

One takeaway from this night: Katie Krupa, one game in, will soon belong high on the long list of point guards who have made the Potters so formidable for so long: Tracy Pontius, Mariah Nimmo, Kait Byrne, Emma Heisler, Josie Becker, Courtney Jones.

So, Ms. Krupa, this point guard thing – you like it?

“Definitely,” she said tonight. Coach Bob Becker’s decision to move Krupa from the paint to the point didn’t surprise her. She has shown she can handle the ball and shoot from anywhere. Besides, as Becker has said, “You want the ball in her hands,” so why not put it in her hands to start every trip downcourt? Krupa, smiling: “He’s a smart coach.”

Speaking of smart, can somebody help the dummy typist? I held my breath many times tonight. Not that we were witnessing great drama. Because my glasses kept getting fogged up. What is it, 10 months of masks now and my only defense against Glass Fog is to quit breathing. And that doesn’t seem a reasonable solution. Other suggestions are welcomed.

By the way, in this Covid-season opener with Covid rules in place, I counted 26 spectators in the gym, all wearing masks. All players were masked. One referee wore a mask below his chin, apparently to make room for his whistle. (The other refs had whistle-accommodating masks. Such a world.)

Hobson led Morton’s scoring with 14, Krupa had 8, Frakes 7, Sedona McCartney 5, Abbey Pollard 3, with 2 each from Cailyn Cowley, Paige Chapin, Addy Engel, and Faith Hostetler (who also delivered a box of Milk Duds 13 rows up in the bleachers).

“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.


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.


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.


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.