Fenwick (Oak Park, Ill.) had been paired with Rolling Meadows (Ill.) at the McDonald's Shootout because the two girls' basketball teams played the same vertical game, with the same emphasis on taking the best shot available as early in the shot clock as possible. They were two of the highest-scoring teams in the state of Illinois, largely due to pace and, in Rolling Meadows' case, the point guard who pushes it.
Fenwick entered that high-profile game with two goals: mitigate Rolling Meadows' height and stop Jackie Kemph. The former went all right. The latter did not.
Rolling Meadows' junior point guard went for 38 points on 23 shots, shredding Fenwick double-teams and full-court traps in an 87-83 victory. She also dished out the ball to the tune of seven assists. To celebrate her career night and an important win over a fellow suburban Chicago power, she walked into the locker room after the game and vomited.
"That was Jackie just refusing to lose," said Jenny Vliet, a Division I talent who's been playing by Kemph's side since the two were in fifth grade. "She was really not feeling well, but if she hadn't told me I never would have known. Her intensity that game was what pulled us through."
A stomach flu had wafted its way into the team huddle, soon to affect several players. Kemph felt sick before the game but never considered sitting out. Not playing would have been worse, she said. The first quarter was iffy; adrenaline carried her through the second and third. The nausea came back in the fourth, holding off only until the last basket was scored. She was ill for the next three days.
"It was an exceptional, courageous effort, everything she did in that game," coach Ryan Kirkorsky said.
Ask Michael Jordan: "Flu games" have power. They are symbols of perseverance, of sacrifice of the body for the common good. They are remembered well after normal wins and losses are forgotten. Kemph and her eight junior teammates have been balling together for years. For them, the flu game will always be a shared point in time.
If only Rolling Meadows had gone on to win state, as Kemph's AAU team, Illinois Elite 17U, has in consecutive years, the flu game's legacy might have been carved in pewter. Alas, two offensive rebounds by Marian (Chicago Heights) on its final possession and a buzzer-beating layup gave Marian a surprisingly low-scoring 48-47 triumph in the Illinois Class 4A state championship. Rolling Meadows finished 31-4. Marian finished with one loss -- to Rolling Meadows.
Before this season, Rolling Meadows had never made it past the Round of 16. Somehow the school ended up with three D-I recruits in the same class, and a fourth who's starting to get looks. The 5-foot-6 Kemph has an offer from Arizona State and has had serious talks with Virginia Tech.
"She's lightning-fast on both ends of the court," Kirkorsky said. "She's got better body control than any other girl or boy that I've seen. She can hit the 3, she's got a pull-up jumper, she's a great passer."
She has an aptitude for making the right decision even on the run in a fast-tempo offense. If a defender sags off, she shoots. If a teammate has a mismatch on the wing, she identifies it and gets her the ball. If a slower girl is on her, she attacks the paint hard, contorts her body through the help defense and either flips the ball in or kicks out to Vliet, Northwestern recruit Alexis Glasgow or another shooter. The coach also called her their best defender.
"I can tell you from practice, it's a challenge bringing up the ball against her," Vliet said. "She's right in your face every time."
A three-year starter, Kemph shared ballhandling duties with another point guard until this year, when her teammate left to play soccer at Marquette. She responded with averages of 20 points, 7.6 assists and 3.3 steals on 47 percent shooting from the field and 73 percent from the line. In March, Gatorade named her its Illinois girls' basketball player of the year. The past three winners of that award are playing at UConn, Tennessee and Duke. Previous Illinois winners include WNBA stars Candace Parker and Cappie Pondexter.
Some of the credit goes to fraternal twin Allie Kemph. Rolling Meadows' defensive specialist has been guarding Jackie since they both picked up a ball and has certainly honed the offensive skills Jackie has today. The two also play doubles tennis, a sport they were starting to shine at before taking a few years off before high school. Still, the pair made it into the top 48 at states this year. In case you're wondering, Jackie always plays the forehand side.
Allie also keeps her driven in the classroom. So does the rest of the basketball team. Jackie's 5.34 weighted GPA, which includes three AP classes and four honors classes, is somehow not extraordinary for Rolling Meadows. When the team was being honored by a local village board, Kirkorsky collected grades from his players and was stunned to find that most had a GPA over 5.0.
"I think it definitely makes everyone work a little harder," Jackie said. "We're all really good friends, too. It's how we all are. It's how we interact with each other. We expect each other to get good grades and we expect the same from ourselves."
As high achievers, they all share time-management skills, class notes and a fierce desire to win the state title that was ripped away from them as juniors. They also occasionally share a stomach flu, which, frankly, is maybe too much sharing.