Rarely is a last-second win as much of a team affair as Taft’s stunning comeback victory against Von Steuben was on Wednesday at Northeastern Illinois.
The Eagles trailed the entire game. Von Steuben led by two and had the ball with less than 10 seconds to play.
That’s when Taft senior Alexei Vlahos managed to get a hand on a pass and tip it into the air. It was all football star Dexter Stigall IV needed. The 6-3 quarterback/safety leaped to secure the ball and took it the length of the floor for a layup. But he missed.
Luckily for the Eagles, senior Matt Lesch was trailing the play and tipped in the ball to give Taft a 52-50 win.
“I had no clue Matt was behind me,” Stigall said. “I’m glad he was though.”
Stigall, who has committed to Minnesota State Mankato for football, almost didn’t play basketball this season.
“He has a D-II scholarship for football and was focused on that,” Taft coach Jason Tucker said. “We had to beg him to play. He’s the leader of this team. He’s been amazing for us. If we didn’t have him I think we’d have four less wins this year. He’s unbelievable. It’s a testament to him.”
Stigall scored 12 points and grabbed five rebounds. Lesch finished with 12 points and eight rebounds and senior Chino Garcia led the Eagles (13-5, 4-1 White-North) with 19 points and eight rebounds.
“Chino is tough as nails,” Tucker said. “We are really blessed to have him. He just works hard. He has a few D-III colleges looking at him. He has a good opportunity to play next year.”
Taft was 1-for-12 from three-point range, and the one make was meant to be a pass. Nothing seemed to go the Eagles’ way until the final seconds.
“None of our shots were falling and to be honest even most of our passes were off,” Lesch said. “But this is just a huge win to get in the conference.”
It’s the first conference loss for Von Steuben (7-7, 4-1) and greatly increases Taft’s chances of promotion to the Red next season.
“Right now we just want to get people interested,” Tucker said. “This would be the first winning season in about eight years. We’ve matched our win total from last year already so I’m happy with that.”
“Most of the guys from last year are back and we all knew we didn’t want to have another year like that,” Garcia said. “It just wasn’t fun and we couldn’t let it happen again. It would be a great thing to leave our mark by getting Taft back into the Red.”
The Panthers were without 6-8 Ola Ajiboye, one of the area’s top prospects in the Class of 2021. He injured his hand earlier in the week.
Von Steuben coach Marvin Williams said he will learn more about the injury Friday. Ajiboye is averaging 14 points and 10 rebounds.
Junior Lorenzo Schatzel led the Panthers with 17 points. Senior Chijioke Nwosu added 12 points. Jerry Karr scored eight and Jack Hayes added four points and nine rebounds.
Von Steuben led the conference heading into Wednesday with Taft, Schurz, Lake View and Mather all just one game behind. The top team from the White-North will be promoted to the Red-North/West for next season.