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Nick Rakocevic powers St. Joseph past St. Rita in Proviso West semi

Nick Rakocevic made two major statements. The first he backed up with his play. The second issued a challenge to the teams that go up against St. Joseph the rest of the way.

“When we’re healthy and we have all of our guys, we’re the best team in the state of Illinois,” the 6-9 junior said. Like the rest of his team, he was in a euphoric mood.

Rakocevic scored a game-high 26 points and registered six rebounds as the No. 5 Chargers built a double-digit first-half lead and withstood St. Rita’s second half push for the 72-65 victory in a Proviso West Holiday tournament semifinal Friday night in Hillside.

St. Joseph (11-1) avenged its only loss over the No. 2 Mustangs and advanced to the title game Saturday night against top-ranked Stevenson. The Patriots hammered St. Joseph 85-71 in the semifinals of last year’s tournament.

This was not the same Chargers’ team that lost 80-61 at St. Rita on December 12th. Rakocevic was disciplined and did not start the game. Guards Glynn Watson and Joffrey Brown missed the game.

“The whole situation back then was a pain,” St. Joseph coach Gene Pingatore said.

Rakocevic demonstrated his versatile offensive game by shooting 8-for-10 from the floor and converting 9 of 14 free throws. He drilled a three-pointer and made all four of his free throws in scoring 15 points in the first half to stake the Chargers to a 38-28 lead at the break.

“I definitely think my teammates were looking for me,” Rakocevic said. “I was feeling it. My three was going for me, and the free throws were going for me.”

Kentucky recruit Charles Matthews scored 32 points in the earlier game in leading the Mustangs. He scored a team-best 22 points, but he did the bulk of his damage late in the fourth quarte with St. Rita trying to cut into a 14-point St. Joseph lead.

St. Rita (7-2) never closed within seven points in the second half. The Mustangs shot just 25 percent (3-for-12) on three-pointers and never got their offense in sync. A big reason for that was

Watson, who is fully recovered from the ankle injury. He struggled shooting but otherwise flashed his overall abilities with nine points, seven rebounds and five assists in orchestrating the Chargers’ attack.

Watson also handcuffed Mustangs’ standout guard Armani Chaney, limiting him to just 1-for-9 shooting in the first half. Chaney finished with 13 points. The Mustangs dug a first half hole they could never get out of.

In Pingatore’s six-man rotation, every single player contributed. Held out of the earlier game for disciplinary reasons, Brown was aggressive and sharp in scoring 15 points on 7 of 12 shooting and adding four steals and three assists.

Jordan Ash added 14 points and eight assists.

“In that second quarter we made some stops and went on a run, and just played our game, never getting rattled when they made some shots,” Ash said.

Sophomore big man Lavin Thomas contributed six points and eight rebounds for the Chargers.

Kain Harris had 14 points and Brandon McRoy added 13 points for the Mustangs. Center Myles Carter injured his knee in the third quarter and was held scoreless.

“Our chemistry is different now,” Rakocevic said. ‘We have been together for two years and we have more experience and we’ve matured and you see it out there.”