It’s a scenario that Paul Slavich has his Thornwood team practice every day: They run sprints, then immediately head to the free-throw line.
And then Slavich tells them, “‘Hey, regional championship, we win or lose?”
Wednesday’s game against Richards was technically just a regional semifinal, but the Thunderbirds’ foul-shooting prowess still made all the difference in keeping their season alive — they made all but one in the final minutes to win 68-63.
“We hit enough to get by,” Slavich said. “It’s about survival in the playoffs.”
Eighth-seeded Richards (18-8) got ninth-seeded Thornwood (22-7) big man Jeremiah Tarver in foul trouble quickly, and ended up making three more field goals in the game overall, but shot a hideous 4-of-14 at the line while the Thunderbirds made 14-of-20.
That was enough to advance Thornwood, which maintained a medium-sized lead throughout and never let that edge get cut to less than four down the stretch, to a Friday date against top-seeded Bloom.
“You have to exert so much energy chasing from behind,” Richards coach Chris Passafiume said. “You look up at the scoreboard, you think you were making a run, and then it’s like, ‘Oh man, we’re still down.’ It’s tough mentally to see that.”
Star guard Zachary Carr led the way for Thornwood early, scoring 14 of his 19 points in the first half, and then gave way to multidimensional forward Donald Coats after the break. Coats finished with 21 points on 7-of-12 shooting, including three triples, and seven rebounds.
“Zach is our go-to guy when we need a basket, and then other guys feed off him — when they try to stop him, he drops it off to Jeremiah, he hits Shaun Burress, he finds Donald Coats,” Slavich said. “They hit some big threes and they opened the game up. When you start to pull away like that, it makes teams change up what they do.”
Tarver overcame his early lack of discipline and finished with a steadying 13 points and nine rebounds.
He had a tough defensive matchup against fiery Richards star Trevon Jones, a 235-pound bull inside, and although Jones went for an impressive 24 points on 11-of-16 shooting, Tarver said his mentality is to not care how many points any opponent gets as long as their team loses.
The Thunderbirds were able to shut down everyone else: Albert Jones (11 points) made only 5-of-15 looks from inside the arc, sharpshooter Sean Willis made only 3-of-9 from deep and Kajuan Wines missed the game due to injury. And Thornwood also won the rebounding battle — an especially encouraging sign.
“Throughout the whole season, we’ve had trouble rebounding, so we’ve been practicing crashing the glass, crashing the glass,” Tarver said. “Our bigs stepped up tonight.”
Way back in the second game of the season, Thornwood played at Bloom and only lost by two points, on two final-seconds free throws.
In Friday’s Stagg Regional final in Palos Hills, Slavich hopes the foul-shooting fortune will go his side’s way.
“We know we’re going to have our hands full with Bloom, they’re a great team, but I think our guys have it in them to go compete and get a W on Friday night,” he said.