As always at this time of the year, particularly the night of regional championships, sectional semifinals and sectional title games, there are so many games to choose from in a single night.
That was the case Friday. And you can only choose one. And, boy, did I feel fortunate to choose the right one.
Simeon-Brother Rice was pretty special. It may not have matched the epic Simeon-Brother Rice still-talked-about-game of 2005 at St. Xavier, where I watched sophomore Derrick Rose and senior Bobby Frasor in a sectional championship. But few games I have watched over the years since have matched that one. That was an exhilarating and exhausting double overtime win for Brother Rice.
For a regional championship, this one had it all, and it was the best basketball game I’ve watched this season –– partly because of what was at stake but mostly due to the high caliber of play. There was just play after play, shot after shot of a big variety displayed at every turn in a back-and-forth 32 minutes of action.
Throw in a vibrant and electric atmosphere in an old school gym, a star player putting on a show, a glimpse into the future, one overtime and a buzzer-beater? How does it get any better?
There are few if any student sections who have been around and recognized, been active and engaged for decades in high school basketball. The Crusader Crazies have been.
There were bigger names on the floor who had bigger games, but it was a freshman, Simeon’s heralded 6-9 AJ Casey, with the buzzer-beating tip-in to win it in overtime. And it was Ahamad Bynum playing like the super sophomore everyone had been told he was, scoring 20 points and knocking down three-pointer after three-pointer. Those two, along with freshman guard Jaylen Drane, continue to show us what’s to come at Simeon and in high school basketball in coming years.
There was Simeon’s Antonio Reeves, who remains one of the top uncommitted players in the state in the senior class, putting up big numbers again for a program that typically doesn’t produce big individual numbers. He scored 26 points.
But after the dust had settled and Simeon had avoided losing in the regional for the first time in 17 years and moved on to yet another week of sectional basketball in its long, storied history, I was still talking about the individual performance of Marquise Kennedy.
The Brother Rice and Loyola-bound senior guard, who put together a sensational season, simply does things others in this class can’t do –– and he did them all Friday night.
As I sat with Loyola assistant coaches Drew Valentine and Matt Gordon during the game and spoke with head coach Porter Moser immediately following the game on the phone, all I could repeatedly say was this: “What an individual performance and what a recruiting steal for the Ramblers.”
What you love and find refreshing about Kennedy goes beyond the stat line. Yes, his numbers were incredible: 27 points, eight rebounds, eight assists, three steals and two blocks. But his intangibles, doing so many little things and his will to win stand out.
You throw in the growth and maturity he’s shown in his game, along with his exceptional athleticism and remaining upside, and he’s the full package of player and prospect. He may not have won the Catholic League Player of the Year, but he’s without question one of the top three or four Player of the Year candidates in the Chicago area. Period.
Enough with Simeon-Brother Rice –– it’s only a regional, after all. Lets rewind this regional championship night.
Is it possible for a team to win 23 games, hand Geneva its only loss of the season and beat No. 2 seed Benet for a regional championship and still fly under the radar? You bet it is. And Lake Park, a team the City/Suburban Hoops Report underestimated all season, is that team.
What a job first-year coach Billy Pitcher, who led Lake Zurich to a regional title last season, has done with the Lancers. It’s a team that came into the season with zero fanfare, and it certainly wasn’t a team that wowed anyone in the offseason.
But the Lancers have continued to improve over the course of the season. Remember (Oh, who am I kidding? No one remembers this!), Lake Park started the year 3-4 with losses to Wheaton Academy, Batavia, Downers Grove North and Wheaton North.
They beefed up their record with four wins at the Glenbard West Holiday Tournament in December, gained a shot of momentum with a January win over Geneva and have now won eight of their last nine.
But please do remember this: Lake Park is a junior-dominated team. Those players making the big plays and putting up the numbers in regional wins over host DeKalb and perennial 20-game winner Benet? Guards Luke Sgarbosa, Montrell Perry and Joey Czaja, along with 6-5 Trevor Montiel, are all juniors.
THIRD TIME IS THE CHARM
Over the course of the season there are teams you come to really like and appreciate, teams that aren’t obvious choices for that type of respect but ones you believe are better than some people give them credit for being.
York has been one of teams for me this year, along with a Geneva team that continues to roll along without a ton of hoopla surrounding them.
And it’s why despite losing to Oak Park twice in the regular season, including once by 29 points back in December, the Hoops Report went ahead and picked York to beat Oak Park in the regional final Friday night.
By knocking off Oak Park in convincing fashion Friday night, York won its fifth regional title in the last seven years but first since the 2015-2016 season. The Dukes also added to their school record win total of 29 victories.
When you can put four players on the floor who can knock shots down, along with the passing and spacing the Dukes play with, and you throw in a jack-of-all-trades, undersized 6-4 big who overachieves, you have something. There are multiple weapons for opposing teams to defend and prepare for –– from 1,000-point scorer Erik Cohn to veteran senior guard Nick Kosich to promising junior guard Nate Shockey to blue-collar workhorse Sam Walsh to complimentary players who can make shots.
In addition to the strong perimeter play and ability to really spread the floor with its three-point shooting, there is a cohesiveness and purpose with this team.
Now the stakes are raised with a sectional semifinal date at Proviso West with state power and No. 2 seed Young. York hasn’t won a sectional championship since 1982.
DON’T WRITE OFF LOYOLA YET
A 2-6 stretch to close out the regular season left the majority of people jumping off the Loyola bandwagon after a sparkling 15-4 start to open the season.
But you have to take into account the injury to Connor Barrett, who missed the final nine games of the regular season.
This Loyola edition isn’t exactly wired to score. So when you lose Barrett, a varsity veteran and the team’s leading scorer at 15 points a game –– and at that particular point in the season –– it’s quite a jolt.
The 6-4 shooting guard returned for the regional semifinal and promptly knocked down five three-pointers in the win over Rolling Meadows. He added 11 points and two more three-pointers in the grind-it-out 37-34 win over Maine South in the regional final.
The Ramblers have now won three straight regional championships and averaged just over 22 wins a year during that time.
DOWNERS NORTH DROUGHT ENDS
After being high on Downers Grove North when the season started, there was no reason to jump off the ship when March rolled around.
Though DGN lacked the high-profile win, it was still a team that won 20 games in the regular season and boasted strong individual talent, led by the guard tandem of Trey Boston and Sema’j Henderson. It’s why I had a feeling Downers North would knock off rival Downers South in the rematch, though not in the fashion that it did.
Downers Grove North has ended its postseason drought with its first regional title since 2002. And the Trojans did so in an emphatic way, blowing out Downers Grove South 65-42. This is also the first 20-win season for DGN since the 2000-2001 season.
Homewood-Flossmoor prepared itself for what is always going to be a brutally tough sectional. Coach Marc Condotti put together his typical tough regular-season schedule, which included a road date at Simeon in December.
What H-F didn’t prepare for was being without its two leading scorers in the regional final.
With athletic big men Issac Stanback (15 ppg) and R.J. Ogom (12 ppg) both out of action and playing a red-hot St. Rita team in the final at T.F. North, the Vikings were still able to win a second straight regional and 14th regional title in the last 18 years.
That says quite a bit about Condotti and what he’s instilled in this group. Stanback is expected back for the sectional game against Bloom, while Ogom’s ankle is a wait-and-see.
YOU CAN COUNT ON SENIORS
There are a few different recipes for success in March. Big-time talent is often the overriding factor. However, don’t dismiss senior leadership, continuity and chemistry, which you’ll find a lot of with this Riverside-Brookfield team thanks to five senior starters.
There is talent among the starting five of point guard Zach Vaia, 6-6 Andrew Veon, dead-eye shooter Patrick Hanley and the versatile tandem of 6-3 Reggie Loury and 6-4 Charles Terry.
With the mild upset of Lincoln Park in the regional final Friday night, the Bulldogs have now won 15 straight games and tied the school record for most wins in a season.
To break the record and get to win No. 29? Beat the state’s top-ranked team, Curie, who hasn’t lost to a single team from Illinois this season. Now THAT would be quite the senior legacy this group would leave.
LONG WAY FOR WAUBONSIE
When coach Jason Mead took over the Waubonsie Valley program in 2016, the Warriors were coming off a 5-22 season. Mead then went 8-19 in his first season and 13-18 last year. Heading into this season, Waubonsie had won a total of 36 games the previous four years.
Now the Warriors are 27-4 and regional champs, the first regional title since 2008 and one win from tying the school record for most victories in a season.
ST. LAURENCE 3A SECTIONAL FIELD MATERIALIZES
Class 3A always seems to take a back seat to Class 4A when March rolls around. But after the regionals played out as expected Friday night, the St. Laurence Sectional field will offer up some intrigue and keep a spotlight on Class 3A next week.
Yes, Morgan Park and Bogan are the heavy favorites, state title contenders and on a collision course to meet in the final. However, St. Laurence has talent, can really score and will be playing in front of its home crowd Wednesday night when it faces Bogan. And, oh, the Vikings are an impressive 27-5 on the year as well.
Morgan Park, meanwhile, will face another South Side school –– a 23-win Mount Carmel team out of the Chicago Catholic League.
ANOTHER 2,000-POINT PLAYER
Waukegan’s Bryant Brown joined the exclusive 2,000-point club Friday night in helping the Bulldogs to an easy 66-39 regional championship game win over Grayslake North. He scored 24 points in the game and now has 2,001 career points heading into a sectional semifinal game against Fremd next week.
Brown has been the epitome of production throughout his four-year career at Waukegan with an easy-to-coach, low-maintenance, team-first mentality and approach. While it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster the past two seasons at Waukegan, Brown has been a rock, a stabilizing force. And now the uncommitted 6-5 forward gets a chance to play a sectional on his home floor.
Earlier this season Johnsburg’s Zach Toussaint eclipsed the whopping scoring total of 2,000 career points. Toussaint and Johnsburg are still alive after winning a Class 3A regional title Friday night. Toussaint, who scored just 56 points during his freshman year, is now pushing past 2,200 career points.
Woodstock North hasn’t been around long, so the Thunder are going to soak up this 2018-2019 basketball season’s success. The basketball program won its first regional title with a 67-63 win over Genoa-Kingston to advance to a Class 3A sectional semifinal date with Glenbard South Wednesday night at Marengo.
CHILL WITH THE PICKS
When I posted my regularly scheduled Weekend Forecast last week –– the regional championship edition –– I clearly touched a few nerves. Some of the angst and vitriol shown over my title game picks from people through social media and story comments … My goodness, people! Relax.
These are high school basketball game picks –– with 15, 16 and 17 year-olds deciding outcomes of highly-contested, pressure-packed and often toss-up games.
You would have thought I was off my rocker in picking three games in particular –– York over Oak Park, Schaumburg over New Trier and Riverside-Brookfield over Lincoln Park. Those three won Friday night by a combined 43 points.
I’ll take the 12-3 regional picks record and run.