NORMAL – The final game Montini seniors Kaylee Bambule and Claudia Kunzer played together ended the same way so many others had.
Kunzer scored a team-high 10 points, including the final layup, and Bambule added six points, including her 294th career 3-pointer, as the Broncos knocked off Fremd 35-22 to capture third place at the Class 4A state finals March 4 at Redbird Arena.
Montini (33-2) played tremendous defense, allowing Fremd (28-8) just five baskets. The Broncos sank four 3-pointers, including two by Kunzer, during a decisive 11-0 run in the fourth quarter.
The win was a sweet end to an otherwise bittersweet weekend. The Broncos’ attempt to win their fifth state title – their first attempt in Class 4A – ended with a 37-35 semifinal loss to Edwardsville (32-1). Geneva beat Edwardsville 41-40 in the state championship game.
“I think it’s always special to end on a win,” Bambule said. “There’s only two teams that get to end on a win.
“To end my career with a win with the best team, in my eyes, it’s unbelievable and awesome.”
The Ohio-bound Bambule finished her four-year career with 1,456 points. Her 294 3-pointers rank 11th on the state’s all-time list.
Bambule and South Dakota State signee Kunzer helped the Broncos to a 128-12 record and three state trophies, including the 2014 Class 3A title.
“This is my last game with all my best friends,” Bambule said. “Playing with them the past four years has been the best thing and I don’t think there is anything better than Montini. It’s going to be hard to say goodbye.”
The semifinal loss in which the Broncos shot 4 for 15 from 3-point range was hard for the seniors to deal with, but the leadership of Bambule and Kunzer allowed them to bounce back.
“Some nights you’re hot, some nights you’re not,” Kunzer said. “Unfortunately, [in the semifinal] we weren’t, but we came back and we were hot.
“Shots were falling [in the fourth quarter], so why not keep shooting them. That’s what we’re known for, hitting our threes.”
The Broncos also are known for having the deepest talent pool in the state. That depth was challenged when Syracuse-bound senior Nikki Oppenheimer and star sophomore guard Zoe Zacker suffered season-ending injuries in December.
“That was a big blow,” Montini coach Jason Nichols said. “It’s not an excuse. We still should have won that game [in the semifinal], but with those two we’re dramatically different.
“We did not use that as a crutch all year. We did not talk about it, sometimes to the point that as a coach I felt guilty not acknowledging Nikki and Zoe because my main focus was these kids.”
Nichols inserted Oppenheimer and Zacker into the lineup for three seconds at the end of the Fremd game. Moves like that endeared him to the Broncos.
“When those seconds ticked off, the tears came and I was like, ‘I’m never going to play for this coach again, this coach who is remarkable,’” Kunzer said. “I’ve learned so much and I am the player I am today because of him.”
The Broncos will return plenty of talent, including junior posts Lindsey Jarosinski and Aaliyah Patty, junior guard Illysse Pitts and sophomore guard Sam Mitchell, who had 10 points against Edwardsville and eight points, four assists and three steals against Fremd. But the seniors’ last hurrah was a memorable one.
“Two of our better players got hit with season-ending injuries and I think it showed a lot of toughness in our team to get down here and make it to this point,” Bambule said. “We showed a lot of people a lot of heart and I’m proud of our team.”