Girls basketball: Unbeaten Lincoln too much for Montini in return to state

Colorado State recruit Kloe Froebe scores 27 to lead Lincoln to 58-41 win

Montini's Victoria Matulevicius and Lincoln's Jenna Bowman go after a rebound during their game Friday, March 1, 2024, in the IHSA Class 3A state semifinal at the CEFCU Arena at Illinois State University in Normal.

NORMAL – Montini senior forward Victoria Matulevicius slowly started walking to the bench with one minute left in Friday afternoon’s game.

A four-year varsity player, Matulevicius let the final seconds of the game sink in during her walk to the back of the bench.

Her dream of leading Montini to a Class 3A state championship had fallen short, mainly due to a stunning two-way effort by Lincoln’s Kloe Froebe and Jenna Bowman.

Matulevicius, Alyssa Epps and Riley White, all four-year varsity players, helped rebuild Montini’s program back among the elite in the state after the shocking departure of former coach Jason Nichols. When Nichols left to take the job at Morton College, the Broncos had eight players immediately transfer and were left with only eight players in the abridged COVID spring season.

“I put all my trust in this program and developing as a player, from my freshman year to now,” Matulevicius said. “I had a chance to play with all these girls and leave my mark on this team, as well with Alyssa and Riley. All three of us we tried our hardest and played our hearts out every day to have a chance to be here today (at state).”

But Lincoln, with five senior starters, was too much for the Broncos to handle.

Froebe put on a show to remember in her return to state, finishing with 27 points, nine rebounds, five steals and four assists to power undefeated Lincoln to a 58-41 win over Montini in a Class 3A state semifinal at CEFCU Arena. Teammate Jenna Bowman helped open up the spacing for Lincoln’s offense, especially driving lanes and inside work for Froebe, by canning five of her seven 3-pointers to end with 15 points and three steals.

“We’ve been waiting for this game for a year to make it back to the state title game,” Lincoln coach Taylor Rohrer said. “I’m incredibly proud of how hard my girls played and prepared for today.”

Montini coach Shannon Spanos said Bowman’s perimeter shooting stretched her defense to the limit.

“They are a very difficult team to defend because they have those weapons, so when (Froebe) is getting in the lane and we’re collapsing to try and take that away, then for them to kick it out for threes, we were too far away to close out correctly, so those were daggers,” Spanos said.

Montini's Nicolette Kerstein shoots over Lincoln's Jenna Bowman during their game Friday, March 1, 2024, in the IHSA Class 3A state semifinal at the CEFCU Arena at Illinois State University in Normal.

Montini, in its first state trip since placing third in Class 3A in 2020, reestablished itself among the top in the state by earning a trip to the state semifinals. Matulevicius sparked the team with 12 points and four assists, while Peyton Ferrell had nine points and Nikki Kerstein added nine points, five boards, three assists, two steals and two blocks, including a highlight block on a shot by Froebe with three-plus minutes left.

Matulevicius capped her stellar career with a 3-pointer from the top-of-the-circle.

The Broncos (29-8) have the added misfortune of playing their second game on Friday just a few hours later, battling Hinsdale South (26-11) in Friday’s 6:30 p.m. third-place game. Lincoln shot 25 free throws compared to just two for the Broncos, who committed 17 turnovers.

“We got beat by a very good team,” Spanos said. “Credit to Lincoln. Froebe is an exceptional player. She did a great job. We tried to slow her down and take some things away… When you are having trouble attacking the basket or getting to the free throw line, that hurt us. We knew it was going to be a very physical game.”

The Railsplitters (37-0) waited a year for their chance to redeem themselves from last season’s 3A title-game defeat to Nazareth, ripping off 37 wins in 37 games to set up a rematch with Central Suburban Eight Conference member Glenwood in Saturday’s 5:30 p.m. championship game. Lincoln defeated Glenwood 54-20 on Jan. 6.

Bouyed by a large student and fan turnout, the Railsplitters wasted little time taking control of Friday’s semifinal.

Bowman drained a corner trey in front of the Montini bench to extend the lead to 28-18 lead with 1:24 left until halftime. Froebe, a Colorado State signee and a 3A First-Team All-State selection, gave the Railsplitters some more cushion with a steal and a layup to increase the advantage to 31-18 with 40 ticks remaining.

The Broncos benefitted from some luck when junior forward Peyton Farrell’s top-of-the-key 3-pointer at the buzzer took two big bounces before falling to trim the deficit to 31-22 at halftime. Froebe and Bowman made a powerful statement in the first half, causing havoc all over the court to combine for 24 points, six rebounds and six steals, with Bowman hitting four of her first 3-pointers.

Wearing a nose guard, Kerstein was motivated to atone for last season’s two state blowout losses while at Deerfield. The junior guard, in her first season at Montini, sank two second quarter 3s to slow down Lincoln. Kerstein, the younger sister of Vermont freshman guard Lexi Kerstein, swished a rainbow 3 to lower the gap to 33-25 with 5:29 left in the third. But Bowman answered with a trey, then Froebe scored on two straight layups in a matter of seconds to push it to 40-25.

Kerstein, playing in her third state game of her career, said she was happy to be back on the big stage.

“At the start of the season, having that change was one of the best decisions I’ve made,” Kerstein said. “I’m glad we were able to fight and come back here.”

Montini's Peyton Farrell goes after a rebound between Lincoln's Becca Heitzig (left) and Jenna Bowman during their game Friday, March 1, 2024, in the IHSA Class 3A state semifinal at the CEFCU Arena at Illinois State University in Normal.

Spanos credited her seniors for sticking with the program during a turbulent first season that finished with six wins. The Broncos have won 25, 28 and 29 games in the last three seasons. The Broncos, a storied program with four state titles, a runner-up finish and five third-place trophies under Nichols, have forged their own identity under Spanos.

“When I took over the program, it was very different than it looked in previous years,” Spanos said. “Alyssa, Riley and Victoria were three freshmen who were part of our eight-man roster. They got thrown into it, but having that experience helped. They have grown this program…We were practicing in masks. It’s a very different program than it was now, and all that credit goes to those three seniors and what they have built.”

Bob Narang

Bob Narang is a contributing sports reporter to Shaw Local News Network