Sectional championships. The best night of the high school basketball season –– at least in my eyes.
There is an electricity in a sectional title game gym that’s usually unmatched. And the comfort level of playing in a traditional high school gym, on a Friday night, in front of a raucous crowd and student sections, are what generally brings out the best in terms of the highest quality of play and atmosphere.
There are old, traditional powers and some newbies playing on this big stage, in this big moment. There are several familiar rematches. So there are some intriguing storylines.
But picking these games? Yeesh. Curie vs. Young for the first time? Stevenson and Waukegan tangling for the third time in the Dog Pound after two very tight regular-season games? St. Viator-DePaul Prep and Morgan Park-Bogan in 3A?
Time to get to it. Enjoy arguably the best night of high school basketball this state has to offer.
■ NILES NORTH SECTIONAL
Evanston (29-4) vs. Loyola Academy (22-12)
Any way you look at this one, Evanston is the favorite. The combination of talent and experience, particularly big-game experience the Wildkits have at their disposal, are greater than any team in this sectional.
Loyola has found a way to take it to another level since the return of Connor Barrett from injury and since state tournament play began. Now it must find a way to both control tempo and take care of the ball, with the latter being the key to handling the former. Evanston can turn a game on a dime and go on spurts with transition baskets off of its defense.
Speaking of defense, Loyola is capable of slowing the tempo and handcuffing you at the other end. The stingy defense and toughness has been raised late in the year. Loyola’s three state tournament victims –– Rolling Meadows, Maine South and Schaumburg –– have only been able to muster an average of 35 points a game.
These two met in the regular season (an Evanston 46-31 win), though Loyola was without Barrett, the team’s leading scorer. The two also squared off last year in a sectional semifinal (an Evanston 61-51 win).
Without question, Loyola presents a unique challenge to Evanston. But make no mistake about it: Loyola is one of the bigger underdogs in any sectional title game. The team that struggled down the stretch and people had written off, t he team that has to play the No. 1 seed as a No. 6. But you get the feeling the Ramblers and coach Tom Livatino are relishing that mantra.
Nonetheless, that talent and experience at home wins out.
Hoops Report pick: Evanston 55, Loyola 46
■ WAUKEGAN SECTIONAL
Stevenson (26-5) vs. Waukegan (27-5)
The Dog Pound will be rocking. A great venue for a game that brings two conference foes together for a third time.
After slugging it out with Deerfield in a low-scoring sectional semifinal win, top-seeded Stevenson will now have to try and slow down a Waukegan team that wants to play fast. But to Waukegan’s credit, the Bulldogs showed it can play against and beat a methodical team in Fremd.
Stevenson isn’t exactly Fremd, but it does play a stellar defense that can take an opposing team out of its comfort zone. The Patriots held Waukegan to 56 and 45 points in the two regular season games, which is well below the Bulldogs’ average of 69 points a game.
The big question at hand: Can Stevenson beat a talented Waukegan team for a third time this season? The first two weren’t easy. Stevenson won 63-56 in early January and then won in overtime a month ago.
RJ Holmes played well against Deerfield’s size and continues to grow as a player. The 6-5 junior was also huge in the overtime win over Waukegan last month with a double-double and a big block defensively in the closing seconds. Steady junior scorer and shooter Matt Ambrose is a weapon on the perimeter for the Patriots, who aren’t worried about being here maybe a year earlier than expected.
This senior-dominated Waukegan team is looking for its first sectional title since the Jereme Richmond days. If it’s going to get one, productive Bryant Brown, who recently eclipsed 2,000 career points, will need to lead the way. Brown has been held in check in the two Stevenson losses, scoring 12 points and a hard-earned 20 points on 21 shot attempts in the other.
Hoops Report pick: Stevenson 55, Waukegan 52
■ BARTLETT SECTIONAL
Geneva (31-1) vs. Downers Grove North (24-8)
What more can you say about the Geneva season this senior group as put together? This isn’t a team that blows you away with individual talent, size or athleticism. But the precision the Vikings play with and the execution that follows is eye-opening.
Geneva keeps cruising along, breaking the school record for wins behind the senior duo of point guard Jack McDonald and shooter Mitch Mascari. Senior Kross Garth remains an unheralded key cog for the Vikings with his defense and blue-collar approach.
Downers Grove North has lived up to its early-season expectations. With the program’s first regional title since 2002 –– a blowout win over rival Downers Grove South –– DGN followed it up with a thrilling overtime win over Lake Park in the sectional semifinal.
The guard play with McDonald and Mascari for Geneva and Trey Boston and Sema’j Henderson will be front and center in this one.
If fans haven’t seen or appreciated the impact McDonald provides on a regular basis, it’s time they started. There is just a comfort level in knowing McDonald has the ball in his hands down the stretch of a close game, which is why the Vikings get win No. 32.
Hoops Report pick: Geneva 58, Downers Grove North 54
■ ROCKFORD SECTIONAL
Rockford East (32-2) vs. South Elgin (25-8)
A lot of people haven’t noticed yet that Rockford East has 32 wins on the year and has beaten some quality Chicago area teams along the way, including Benet and York. The E-Rabs have also beaten 3A sectional finalists East St. Louis and Lincoln.
There are a boatload of weapons and perimeter threats, but it starts with the trio of senior guard Chris Burnell, junior scorer Sincere Parker and athletic 6-5 senior Sha’Den Clanton.
South Elgin is enjoying its greatest season in the young program’s history. Already sporting a school record 25 wins, the Storm are one win away from claiming their first-ever sectional title.
The Upstate Eight Conference Player of the Year Vince Miszkiewicz has been one of the most overlooked players in the Chicago area. The bouncy 6-7 senior can play above the rim, runs the floor and shows an evolving face-up game. He does it all for the Storm and has some whopping all-around numbers: 18.9 points, 12.2 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 2.3 blocks and 1.8 steals a game. Shooter Jace Warrick and guard Drake Montgomery are two other double-digit scorers.
Rockford East has its eyes set on getting to the State Finals for the first time in 41 years. The E-Rabs will be one step closer after Friday night.
Hoops Report pick: Rockford East 67, South Elgin 59
■ EAST AURORA SECTIONAL
Bolingbrook (22-7) vs. Oswego East (24-7)
This should be a fun one with a lot of points as both teams love to push the ball in transition and use similar strengths to their advantage.
Oswego East has a star in RayJ Dennis, a player who can score the ball in bunches. But the Boise State recruit can hurt you with his underrated passing as well when too much attention is paid to the senior guard. That means others will have to step up in support, including 6-7 junior Tommy Schultz, athletic 6-6 Kam Battle and Damari Grant, a jet-fast, athletic guard who also happens to be a transfer from Bolingbrook.
But figuring out a way to contain the trio of Joseph Yesufu, Tyler Cochran and Darius Burford is a nightmare for Bolingbrook opponents. When humming, the Raiders are pushing it at a breakneck pace that few teams can match.
This will be interesting because Oswego East likes to play fast. But playing fast against Bolingbrook never seems to be a winning formula.
The Wolves have scored 70-plus points 11 times this season. But Bolingbrook plays at an entirely different speed, scoring 70-plus points 20 times and averaging 75 points a game this season. A track meet could be dangerous for Oswego East.
Hoops Report pick: Bolingbrook 74, Oswego East 67
■ EISENHOWER SECTIONAL
Homewood-Flossmoor (23-7) vs. Simeon (19-14)
The early thought was it would be a Chicago Heights battle in the title game of this rugged sectional as Bloom and Marian Catholic were the top two seeds. But it’s going to be the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds instead in a rematch of a game that took place in December.
Homewood-Flossmoor traveled to Simeon for an early-season showdown. Simeon came away with a 57-54 win.
You have to love the toughness and grit Homewood-Flossmoor is playing with right now. The Vikings were without their two leading scorers, Issac Stanback and RJ Ogom, in the regional final, yet still knocked off a 24-win St. Rita team. H-F then avenged their two regular-season losses to Bloom by beating the No. 1 seed in the sectional semifinal.
Simeon has beaten Brother Rice in overtime and Marian Catholic by just two points to get to this point. More importantly, the Wolverines are healthy and playing their best basketball of the season. H-F has the size and length to try and slow down 20-point scorer Antonio Reeves. But the contributions, both big and small and at both ends of the floor, are coming from a variety of players.
The meat-grinder of a sectional continues, with the reward being a matchup with either Curie, the No. 1 ranked team in the state, or state power Young in the super-sectional.
Hoops Report pick: Simeon 54, Homewood-Flossmoor 49
■ PROVISO WEST SECTIONAL
Curie (32-1) vs. Young (25-7)
The game of the night. No. 1 vs. No. 4. Sectional title on the line.
And of all the multiple big-time showdowns in the city over the past four months, the Young-Curie one never materialized. Curie has beaten them all –– Orr and Farragut once and Simeon, Bogan and Morgan Park twice each. Now it gets the Dolphins in the biggest one of them all.
Each game and win Curie piles up seems more and more like a regular day at the office. You keep waiting for a Curie clunker –– every team has one –– but the Condors have been a model of consistency. Kansas State recruit DaJuan Gordon has played like the high-major recruit he is throughout his senior year, while Trevon Hamilton has been a rock who never gets rattled in the backcourt.
Young had its work cut out in wins over Lane and York in the regional championship and sectional semifinal, respectively, and showed why it has been so successful in March over the years. The Dolphins have played and beaten every style of basketball thrown its way over the years in March.
DJ Steward is a dynamic talent for the Dolphins and forms a pretty special trio with Myles Baker and fellow junior Tyler Beard. Keenan Jones, a long 6-6 senior, is under-appreciated with the dirty work he’s provided. Will he get the defensive assignment on Gordon?
It would be a surprise if this turned out to be anything other than a down-to-the-wire finish between two of the elite teams in 2018-2019.
Hoops Report pick: Curie 67, Young 66
■ EAST MOLINE UNITED SECTIONAL
Belleville West (30-4) vs. Danville (31-3)
This one is outside the Chicago area but features the defending state champs and two 30-plus win teams. Too bad the sectional site is 259 miles from Belleville and 210 miles from Danville.
While all-everything EJ Liddell is the center of attention for the defending state champs –– and at both ends of the floor –– seniors Keith Randolph and point guard Lawrence Brazil know their way around March and sectional basketball as well.
Liddell, though, is an absolute load. The Ohio State-bound big man demands double-team attention. In the sectional semifinal win over Alton he had 21 points, nine rebounds and blocked nine shots.
But this is a Danville team with talent and 31 wins on the year. Senior Sean Houpt is a dead-eye shooter from three (shooting over 43 percent from beyond the arc) and is averaging 18 points a game. He scored 25 in the sectional semifinal win over Pekin. Tevin Smith (17.5 ppg) is a gifted 6-4 sophomore and Nathanael Hoskins (11.5 ppg) is another sophomore producing at a high level.
Danville has battled in all three state tournament wins, trailing in each one but finding a way to beat Champaign Centennial (60-53), Bloomington (66-64) and Pekin (68-57).
Belleville West has just been through so much over the past two seasons, played such a tough schedule to prepare for moments like these and has that force in Liddell to lean on. The defending state champs head back to Redbird Arena next week for another super-sectional date.
Hoops Report pick: Belleville West 65, Danville 56
The best of the Class 3A sectionals
■ GRAYSLAKE CENTRAL SECTIONAL
St. Viator (26-6) vs. DePaul Prep (24-9)
This is a game everyone anticipated and wanted to see in Class 3A. The sectional title game features two teams that were built for this season and this moment.
St. Viator has a pair of Division I players in Jeremiah Hernandez and Trey Calvin, along with some added offensive potency with junior Connor Kochera. All three are double-figure scorers who can hurt you in different ways. But when Kochera is playing well, the Lions seem to be a different team.
DePaul Prep will make things difficult with its defense, veteran experience and toughness, led by four-year varsity anchor Perry Cowan. The 6-4 wing and Catholic League Player of the Year features both star-like qualities and does the dirty work.
Senior Raheem Anthony was clutch in the fourth quarter in the sectional win over Carmel, while sophomore Tyler Johnson and junior Lance Mosley continue to provide a boost on the perimeter for coach Tom Kleinschmidt.
After winning four straight regional championships, DePaul Prep covets an elusive sectional championship. It was just two years ago when St. Viator was one win from playing in Peoria, losing a Class 3A sectional championship in 2017.
If this game can somehow get into the 60s, take St. Viator. But can that DePaul defense get enough stops when it matters most? Of all the games on the board Friday night, this is without question the toughest one to pick.
Hoops Report pick: St. Viator 55, DePaul Prep 53 – OT
■ ST. LAURENCE SECTIONAL
Morgan Park (29-4) vs. Bogan (27-3)
Here. We. Go.
With apologies to Springfield Southeast, this game right here just might feature the two best teams in Class 3A. There is history –– a lot of history –– between these two South Side powerhouses.
Recent history includes a Morgan Park 85-77 win back in December that included emotions, tears and some great quotes following the game, a game that saw Bogan blow a 16-point first half lead. Following the game Bogan coach Arthur Goodwin described Morgan Park this way: “Adam Miller and the four blind mice.”
Miller is a monster. The 6-3 guard is averaging 29 points a game and has received support from Marcus Watson, DeShawndre Washington and 6-9 Karl Jones. But it was Chris Roberts who poured in 29 points in the first meeting with Bogan. The game-changing speed Roberts plays with will always fit right into any Bogan-Morgan Park matchup.
But Bogan has a difference-maker inside in Rashaun Agee, who has seen his game and production grow as a senior. We are now talking about an all-state caliber big man. Agee had 25 points and 14 rebounds the first time these two met.
Jordan Booker has been a force in the backcourt for the Bengals, and the arrival of Antoine Bloxton has been a big shot in the arm over the last three weeks. The talented 6-3 Bloxton just recently became eligible and has played in only six games, but he’s putting up significant scoring numbers.
Hoops Report pick: Morgan Park 72, Bogan 68
■ NORTH LAWNDALE SECTIONAL
Farragut (20-7) vs. North Lawndale (17-11)
How about this old West Side battle? And right inside an old Red-West gym to boot.
Farragut lost to North Lawndale early in the season, and it wasn’t even all that close. North Lawndale claimed a 75-58 win in that one. But we can’t put much stock into that score. Farragut was in the midst of a 2-3 start to its season, getting some very young players’ feet wet at the varsity level and played without Aaron Strong, Edmund Forrest and Mikqwon Jones.
Since then? The Admirals are 18-4.
The highlight of this one are a couple of unsung city guards –– Strong and North Lawndale’s Demetrius Douglas. Both have put up numbers and play with an aggressiveness and toughness.
It’s been an emotional rollercoaster for this North Lawndale team this season. The surprise and tragic passing of coach Lewis Thorpe in October has been on the minds of these players all season.
Farragut, though, has steadily improved over the course of the season and is destined for a return trip to the super-sectional for the first time since 2011.
Hoops Report pick: Farragut 64, North Lawndale 56