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Henricksen: Five post-sectional storylines and thoughts

From upsets to buzzer-beaters and favorites moving on, here are five storylines, along with some odds and ends, from the Class 3A and 4A sectionals.

1. Curie gets over the hump

When Curie and Kenwood met for the sectional championship at Riverside-Brookfield Friday night, one of the two Red-Central powers were going to win their school’s first-ever sectional plaque. But while Kenwood’s arrival on the city and state basketball scene is relatively fresh, Curie has been knocking on the door for years.

Coach Mike Oliver’s program has been highly successful, perennial Top 25-type team, winning everything it can win leading up to a sectional –– Red-Central titles, Pontiac Holiday Tournament titles, Public League titles, regional titles. Curie had the distinction of being the best basketball program without a sectional championship.

After a thrilling overtime win over Kenwood, where senior guard Devin Gage once again stepped up at crunch time, Curie’s struggles of “getting over the hump” have been vanquished.

2. Defending Class 3A state champs still alive

This much we knew about St. Joseph heading into March: The Chargers were good and 6-11 senior Nick Rakocevic was one of the elite players in the state.

What we didn’t know was whether coach Gene Pingatore’s team could rise up and beat highly-ranked teams in succession when it mattered most.

Did narrowly escaping Phillips, 58-57, in the regional final show you the Chargers were capable? St. Joe’s lost three games to the Public League pair of Morgan Park and Bogan by an average margin of 14 points. How about the two double-digit losses to Fenwick this season, including the last one by the score of 73-51 just a few weeks ago?

But here, in the middle of March, St. Joseph is heading to a super-sectional where it will be a heavy favorite to return to Peoria next weekend. That’s after playing the underdog role in the sectional as the No. 3 seed, beating both of the top seeds, North Lawndale and Fenwick.

While I thought North Lawndale would get the best of St. Joseph in the semifinals, it didn’t surprise me the Chargers advanced. But the win over Fenwick? That absolutely shocked me.

Rakocevic, the best unsigned senior in Illinois, is still a dominating force. But his supporting cast is providing Pingatore a little more balance offensively. Junior guard Jason Towers, freshman point guard Marquise Walker and sophomore Joffari Brown were all in double figures in the win over Fenwick.

3. Red-hot Fenwick falls

Fenwick had built up a 28-2 record while facing a very tough schedule, which included a January win over Class 4A favorite Simeon.

The Friars had been playing so well in the second half of the season, winning 15 straight heading into the sectional showdown with St. Joseph.

And, yes, coach Rick Malnati’s team had handled St. Joseph so easily a few weeks ago.

While I thought Fenwick had flaws throughout the season –– a lack of depth, size and inside scoring and rebounding, for starters –– they never seemed to be exposed through 30 games. They kept humming along at an impressive rate, catapulted by the play of point guard Mike Smith and some precise basketball execution and sharing of the basketball. By midseason it had the look of a bonafide challenger to the likes of Morgan Park and Belleville Althoff in Class 3A.

There was a little more weight on the shoulders of Smith –– probably more than we all realized –– as proven by the 5-10 senior scoring 34 of Fenwick’s 55 points in the sectional final loss to St. Joseph.

4. Potential 3A blockbuster semis in Peoria still alive

The March forecasters have envisioned the Class 3A semifinals looking something like this: Morgan Park and Charlie Moore vs. Peoria Manual and Da’Monte Williams in one semi and Fenwick and Mike Smith vs. Belleville Althoff and Jordan Goodwin in the other.

Well, three of the four are still alive. And substituting the defending state champs (St. Joseph) and the top unsigned senior (Nick Rakocevic) in place of Fenwick isn’t so bad.

If this all materialized, the Class 3A semifinals would bring together the state’s top junior prospects, Williams and Goodwin, the state’s top senior and Chicago Sun-Times Player of the Year, Moore, and the 6-11 Rakocevic, in a star-studded field of players.

It would almost feel wrong, or fans would be cheated, if three of those four teams didn’t make it to Peoria. While Althoff, Morgan Park and St. Joseph will all be heavily favored in their respective super-sectional games Tuesday, Manual will have its hands full with a Rockford Boylan team that beat them in January.

5. Some love for the first-timers

Sure, Curie was a first-time sectional champion. But as mentioned, we’ve been talking Curie basketball for well over a decade. Now it’s time to talk some … Ridgewood basketball? … Lincoln-Way West hoops?

Before Ridgewood’s dramatic halfcourt buzzer-beating shot to win Friday’s sectional championship over St. Patrick, the program had never won a sectional title before. In fact, Ridgewood has only five regional championships in school history.

When current St. Charles East coach Pat Woods took over the Ridgewood program in 2001, it was abysmal. The Rebels were coming off a two-year stretch where they went a combined 7-46. Add a combined record of 15-65 over the next three years and Ridgewood basketball was 22-111 over a five-year period.

Woods, however, continued to build. After some heavy lifting, Woods led Ridgewood to a competitive level where it would win 14, 17 and 14 games in his final three seasons before taking the St. Charles East job.

Chris Mroz took over as coach, four-class basketball was here and Ridgewood’s fortunes were a little more fruitful. Mroz led Ridgewood to back-to-back regional titles and 20 win seasons in 2011 and 2012, and he now has led the program to its first sectional championship.

Lincoln-Way West, meanwhile, has a much shorter history. The school has played just seven varsity basketball seasons.

The building of the program was obviously going to take time. After the first five years Lincoln-Way was 26-118.

Coach Brian Flaherty took over the program last year and promptly led the Warriors to a 21-win season and a regional championship with a young team. The expectations were high coming into this season and Lincoln-Way West is now on the doorstep of playing in Peoria.

March odds and ends …

▪ The Pontiac Holiday Tournament has to be feeling some pride. When Super Tuesday arrives for the remaining Class 3A and 4A teams, five of them will have played at Pontiac this past December. Curie, Simeon, Peoria Manual, Joliet West and Benet will all play in a super-sectional.

▪ One of the breakout players this postseason has been Traveon Buchanan of United Twp. in East Moline. He scored 26 points in the sectional final win, including the game-winning free-throws, and had 30 points and 10 rebounds in the sectional semifinal win over Rock Island.

Interestingly, roughly one year ago Buchanan was starting in the Chicago Public League sophomore championship game –– for Simeon. Buchanan started his high school career at Simeon and played for the sophomore team last year. His family moved to East Moline shortly after the season ended.

Now the red-hot Buchanan and United Twp. will face Simeon in the Normal Super-Sectional.

▪ There will surely be some homecourt advantages in a few super-sectional games Tuesday night. Will the strong contingent of local fans with short travel distances make a difference in those three games?

Fresh off winning its first sectional championship since 2007, Conant will now be able to stay home and play its super-sectional in Hoffman Estates at the Sears Centre. Conant is just nine miles from the Sears Centre, while Rockford Auburn will have to make the roughly 60-mile trip.

Niles Notre Dame always has a strong fan following, so the crowd at Northwestern’s Welsh-Ryan Arena will be large and raucous as the NU campus is only seven miles from Notre Dame. While Curie is the slight favorite, the energy and atmosphere should be a big boon for the Dons.

Lincoln-Way West may have had to travel 66 miles to Streator to win a sectional championship, but it now gets to play the super-sectional in its back yard at Joliet Central. The Warriors will surely have a monster fan following in its matchup with Morgan Park as Joliet Central is just six miles from Lincoln-Way West.

▪ Both super-sectional games to be played at DeKalb Tuesday night are regular-season rematches. Joliet West beat Benet 59-53 in December, while Rockford Boylan knocked off Peoria Manual 76-64 in January. In that Joliet West-Benet game at the Pontiac Holiday Tournament, Benet shot 4 of 22 from the three-point line.

▪ You could make the argument Conant coach Tom McCormack is the most underrated coach in the Chicago area. But maybe because that argument has been made so many times over the years –– by yours truly –– that’s no longer the case.

But consider the following …

When McCormack took over the Conant program in 1986, it was the laughingstock of the northwest suburbs. In the previous six seasons before McCormack’s arrival, Conant’s highest win total in a season was four games. F-O-U-R!

McCormack had inherited a program that had a gone 11-138 the previous six seasons.

Within four years of being hired McCormack had Conant playing in a super-sectional. In McCormack’s 29 years he’s led Conant to 12 regional championships, five sectional titles, won 18 or more games in 16 different seasons and piled up more than 500 career wins.

It’s been awhile since his last trip to state –– the 1993-1994 team won 27 games and reached the Elite Eight in Champaign –– but the Cougars are one win from Peoria.

Follow Joe Henricksen and the Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport