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Lockdown defense, John Poulakidas’ shooting touch lead Neuqua Valley past Lockport

The Wildcats knocked off the Porters 64-41 in the Class 4A regional semifinals Wednesday at Lincoln-Way West.

Neuqua Valley’s John Poulakidas (32) shoots the ball over Lockport.
Neuqua Valley’s John Poulakidas (32) shoots the ball over Lockport.
Kirsten Stickney/For the Sun-Times.

Neuqua Valley junior John Poulakidas is one of the best three-point shooters in Illinois. He set a school record with 49 points in a victory against Bolingbrook in early January and has racked up 16 scholarship offers from Division I schools.

His smooth shooting stroke is rare for a 6-5 high school player. Poulakidas would prefer to say it all happened naturally, but that isn’t the case.

‘‘As much as I don’t like giving credit to my dad, it’s because of him,’’ Poulakidas said. ‘‘When I was younger, he didn’t let me shoot threes. Not until I was in fifth grade. He wanted me to build up strength, so my form and shot wouldn’t be altered later.’’

Michael Poulakidas, John’s dad, played at Waubonsie Valley and North Central College before attending law school. He laid the foundation, but it has been nothing but John’s hard work since.

‘‘It’s been a lot of late nights and early mornings in the gym, perfecting my shot,’’ Poulakidas said.

The Wildcats defeated Lockport 64-41 in the Class 4A regional semifinals Wednesday at Lincoln-Way West. Poulakidas scored 17 points.

‘‘His all-around game has really grown this season,’’ Neuqua Valley coach Todd Sutton said. ‘‘Last year, he was pretty much a catch-and-shoot guy. Now he’s off-the-dribble, and his posting up is much better than it was.

‘‘There have been games where he’s been the distributor. Maybe a month ago, he had nine assists in a game. He was really putting on a show. Tonight was the first time I saw him working really hard on off-the-ball defense. He was helping and getting some steals. He hasn’t done that all year. He had a great defensive game.’’

The Wildcats (24-8) were locked in on defense, allowing the Porters (14-17) only three baskets in the first half. Neuqua Valley also owned the boards, leading to a 26-11 halftime advantage. Lockport, which was led by junior Matas Deksnys’ 17 points, wasn’t able to put together any kind of a run in the second half.

‘‘We were locked in a little more because it was the playoffs,’’ Poulakidas said.

Junior Connor Davis has stepped up and become a consistent offensive threat for the Wildcats this season. He finished with 15 points and seven rebounds.

‘‘Teams have been using the box-and-one and different shadowing defenses on me,’’ Poulakidas said. ‘‘Connor has just really relieved the pressure on me and helped open things up for the team. He’s a huge part of all the 24 wins.’’

Those trick defenses frustrated Poulakidas early in the season.

‘‘The first few games, I was forcing my shots,’’ Poulakidas said. ‘‘I was trying to do a little too much. I kind of settled into a rhythm after Thanksgiving. I started trusting my teammates and my own instincts.’’

A double-overtime victory against Bolingbrook showed the potential Neuqua Valley has. Next up is Plainfield North in the regional final Friday. Plainfield North beat the Wildcats in overtime Feb. 18.

‘‘Everything that happened in the regular season means nothing heading into Friday,’’ Poulakidas said. ‘‘Our mindset is going to be different than it was against them last time.’’