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BLOOMINGTON — The sublime simplicity of making open shots early helped the Morton High School girls basketball team hold off a furious Normal Community rally in the large school division championship game of the 39th State Farm Holiday Classic at Shirk Center on Saturday.

The No. 2-seeded Potters’ .625 field goal shooting in the first half paved the way for a 61-56 triumph.

The No. 5-seeded Iron, who also lost to Morton 63-54 on Nov. 24, fell to 12-4 while the three-time defending Class 3A state champion Potters improved to 14-1. Saturday’s effort earned Morton its first Classic title in school history.

“They hit you from all angles,” said NCHS coach Marcus Mann. “They are a great team top to bottom. They share the ball well and put pressure on you. They make you have to rotate out of position.

“What they do, they do to perfection almost. If you’re not ready to go and firing on all cylinders, they will take advantage of it.”

Morton coach Bob Becker said, “Our kids were extremely motivated. We’ve been humbled the other three times we’ve been in the championship game. We were ready to compete.

“We don’t want this to be the end-all. We want to peak at the end of the season, but this is certainly a feather in their hat.”

Lindsey Dullard scored 18 points for the Potters while Caylie Jones added 13, all-tournament honoree Tenley Dowell 12 and Josi Becker 10.

“They do make it look easy,” Mann said. “The type of athlete they have fits their system well. Coach Becker is a very smart coach over there. He puts them in good positions.”

The hot-shooting Potters hustled to leads of 8-2, 12-5 and 19-11. Their 15-of-24 field goal accuracy gave them a 38-23 lead at halftime. Morton’s 15 first-half baskets included 10 from beyond 15 feet.

“That was incredible shooting the first half,” said Becker, whose team made seven 3-pointers. “I think the kids played with a lot of confidence.”

The Potters stretched the gap to 47-25, but then NCHS came alive when Caelyn Steffens’ layup sparked a 15-2 run to pull within 49-40. When Maya Wong, who finished with 11 points, later completed a three-play play, the Iron found themselves within 53-48 with 1:51 left.

Dowell’s three-point play made sure they got no closer.

“They’ve got talented competitive kids and they weren’t going away,” Becker said of NCHS. “I can see them making a run in 4A. They’ve got the pieces for sure. I think the new year will bring some bright things for both programs.”

Abby Feit led NCHS with 18 points. All-tournament teammate Summer Stoewer added nine points.

Also making the all-tourney team were Bloomington’s Ellie Weltha, Chatham Glenwood’s Makenzie Bray, Chicago St. Ignatius’ Molly Gannon and Peoria Richwoods’ Kourtney Crane.

Annawan 56, Danville Schlarman 46: After Danville Schlarman lost its composure, the game was soon to follow and Annawan walked away with its first small school bracket championship.

The reigning Class 1A state champion Bravettes made the most of six points from technical fouls.

"We honestly thought we could get them in that position," said Annawan coach Jason Burkeiewicz. "We've seen it before. We thought we could get them frustrated a little bit. They kind of played into our hands."

Pushing Annawan across the finish line was 6-foot-1 Arizona State recruit Jayde VanHyfte, who scored 32 points. Her first basket made her the tournament's all-time scoring leader, breaking her sister Celina's mark of 358. The younger VanHyfte finished her Classic career with 389 points, which included 14 free throws on Saturday. 

"That's going to be difficult to beat," Burkiewicz said. "She's just an animal. Until she got in foul trouble, I told her 'you're playing 32 (minutes). You are going to show everybody you're one of the best players in the nation.'"

By outshooting Schlarman from the field, .545 to .269, Annawan (16-0) extended its winning streak to 37 games, the 14th longest in state history.

The Hilltoppers (14-1) saw sophomore Division I prospect Capria Brown draw two early fouls. Then with 5:33 left in the half, she reacted to a third foul and was given a technical. Just 2:14 later, the Schlarman bench drew a technical and Annawan soon had a 17-14 lead.

In the third quarter, Schlarman's bench drew back-to-back technicals and had a fan ejected as Annawan pushed the lead to 32-24.

Notre Dame recruit Anaya Peoples, who finished with 15 points en route to all-tourney honors, helped the Hilltoppers get within 36-33 at the end of the third quarter, but they got no closer. Fellow all-tourney pick Brown finished with eight points in limited action.

VanHyfte, another all-tournament honoree, grabbed 14 rebounds.

"(Celina) is happy for me," VanHyfte said of the record. "We texted before the game. She said, 'I'm so proud of you. You have accomplished so much.' It's just a great honor."

Burkiewicz said winning the Classic is harder than winning state.

"When you are as strong of a 1A team as we are, the road isn't as difficult as four days of this," he said. 

Also making the all-tournament team were El Paso-Gridley's Aubrey Staton, Camp Point Central/Augusta Southeastern's Laney Lantz and Champaign St. Thomas More's Nakaya Hughes. 

Central Catholic 58, St. Joseph-Ogden 49: In the small school third-place game, No. 3 seed Central Catholic (13-4) duplicated last year's finish with a win over No. 5 seed St. Joseph-Ogden (11-6). 

Bailey Coffman went 14 of 16 at the free throw line and led the Saints with 26 points. Lauren Shanks added 19.

A 19-8 run in the third quarter helped Central expand on a 25-23 halftime lead. The Spartans, who were outscored at the line 24-2, received 12 points from Taylor Barnes. 

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Reporter for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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