The biggest news from Friday’s regional championship action was what almost happened.
There were some massive sighs of relief from a few high-seed heavyweights as they lived to play another day.
While Class 4A favorite Glenbard West, the top-ranked team in the state, was leading York 41-4 at the half en route to an easy 64-26 regional title game victory, Simeon, Curie and Glenbrook South –– three of the top six ranked teams –– all survived one possession victories.
Top-seeded Glenbrook South beat Niles North 67-64, while Curie, a No. 2 sectional seed, played at Hinsdale Central and escaped with a 46-43 win over the Red Devils.
But the biggest near-stunner came in the St. Laurence Regional final. Simeon, the No. 1 ranked team in Class 3A, survived, beating the host team 43-41 before an energized crowd. St. Laurence’s attempted clean-look three-pointer at the buzzer missed.
Simeon’s Robert Smith has been involved in just about every type of game imaginable in his 18 years as head coach. This was a first, however. Smith, who has never lost a regional game, said this was the “scariest” regional game he’s been a part of.
“They came in with nothing to lose, we gave them opportunities, they stayed in it and you could see them building confidence,” Smith said. “And they just fed off that crowd.”
The Wolverines did play on the road, but it was a young, inexperienced, freshmen-led St. Laurence team that just finished 8-23 in the regular season.
“I give total credit to St. Laurence and their staff,” Smith said. “They were well prepared and ready. Our guys thought they were just going to walk in and win.”
The double-seeded team surprise
History has shown it’s very rare teams seeded outside the top five win regional championships. That trend continued in a convincing way this year in Class 4A.
Of the 32 teams advancing to sectional semifinal play, there was just one team –– No. 12 seed Naperville North –– that beat the odds. With the exception of the underdog Huskies, every team playing in next week’s sectional is a top five seed.
Coach Gene Nolan’s team undoubtedly will play the role of Cinderella this week.
Naperville North had lost to rival Naperville Central twice in the regular season by a combined 28 points. But the Huskies beat the sectional’s fifth seed when it mattered most with a 46-32 regional semifinal win.
Then the Huskies, behind brothers Zeke and Luke Williams, improved to 17-15 by knocking off No. 4 seed Lake Park in the regional championship.
The reward? Naperville North’s Cinderella run will likely end with a thud against top-ranked juggernaut Glenbard West in a Bartlett Sectional semifinal game Tuesday night.
Regional titles can mean a little more for some
For some, regional titles are old hat. But Andrew’s 62-49 win over Plainfield Central was monumental.
With the win the Thunderbolts reached the 20-win plateau and won a regional championship for just the third time in program history.
While leading scorer Mike Morawski scored his reliable 16 points in the regional win, Arnas Sakenis stepped up with 18 points and six blocks.
Andrew coach Dave Wilson has witnessed all three regional titles in person. The Andrew grad was a freshman when the T-Bolts won their first regional title in 1990. He was the sophomore coach during the 2012 regional title run.
Andrew lost in the sectional semifinals to Bloom in 1990 and fell again in the sectional semis to Homewood-Flossmoor in 2012.
Now Wilson hopes to see the program win its first-ever sectional game. Andrew will face No. 2 seed Bolingbrook, a team it split with during the regular season.
Montini cashes in on regular season rigor
It’s been nearly 40 years since Montini basketball has celebrated a regional championship –– 39 to be exact –– so Friday’s Class 2A regional title win over Immaculate Conception was special.
Coach Adam DeMong took over the program in the Covid-shortened 2020-21 season. In just his second season he has the school’s first regional championship since 1983.
Glenbard West isn’t the only program to implement a difference-making zone this season. While the top-ranked team’s 1-3-1 is the talk of defensive strategy and scheme in high school basketball this season, DeMong’s 2-3 zone was just the trick for a program looking to compete against a predominantly Class 3A and 4A schedule.
Individually, junior Emory Marshall has blossomed. Marshall, who averages 16.4 points and 3.4 assists a game, scored 26 and 19 points in the two regional wins. Andrew Stokes has been a stat-sheet-stuffing senior, averaging 14 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.4 assists a game.
Montini (14-17) finished the regular season 12-17 but prepared itself well by playing in the Catholic League and facing a strong non-conference schedule.
In addition to the ranked Catholic League opponents it faced, which included eight games against regional championship teams, Montini also played six additional regional champs in non-conference play: St. Francis, Rolling Meadows, Benet, Fremd, Andrew and Naperville North.
Montini now squares off with state-ranked Rockford Lutheran in a sectional semifinal game at Marengo.
Other regional droughts end
▪ The last regional championship for Nazareth was an all-timer. Despite being the second smallest Class AA school in the state in 1991, with an enrollment of 670 students, unbeaten Nazareth played with the west suburban powers and won a regional title behind Naz basketball legend Sean Pearson. The Roadrunners ultimately lost in the sectional title game to eventual state champ Proviso East.
But there hasn’t been a regional title since. Now three decades later, following a regional title game win over Lindblom, Nazareth will play sectional basketball and face perennial power Simeon.
▪ Rolling Meadows surely would have been in position to win a regional championship a year ago with Player of the Year and Michigan State recruit Max Christie as the star senior. But there was no state tournament.
Max Christie’s brother, junior Cameron Christie, and the Mustangs went ahead and ended Rolling Meadows’ 21-year regional drought with a 59-56 win over Hoffman Estates. The win also tied the school record for most wins in a season with 28.
Rolling Meadows gets a rematch with highly-ranked New Trier, a team it lost to back in January, 60-56.
▪ In Class 3A, Grayslake Central pulled off a minor upset as the sixth-seeded Rams beat No. 4 seed Deerfield 53-47. This was the first regional title in 10 years.
▪ While Wauconda may have won a regional title as recently as 2020, the win over Prairie Ridge in Friday’s regional final marked just the second regional title in half a century.
Red-hot Will Grudzinski
Barrington (25-4) hasn’t been talked about a whole lot –– and either has its best player, versatile wing Will Grudzinski. Both team and player are thriving at the right time.
Grudzinski is the rare threat as a scorer, rebounder and facilitator. But in particular he’s been a monster down the stretch of the regular season and continued his high-level play in two regional games.
In the last nine wins of the season, Grudzinski has averaged 24.8 points, consistently scoring 19-plus in each of them. Along the way he tied the school record for most threes in a game (eight) and broke the school’s single-season three-point record with 89.
And he’s been the best in the biggest games of the year.
Grudzinski scored 24 in a late-season victory over Palatine to capture the Mid-Suburban League West, a must-win game that pushed his team into the MSL championship game.
The Broncos then upset Rolling Meadows in the MSL championship game, thanks to 23 points from Grudzinski and a pair of back-breaking three-pointers in the fourth quarter.
The multi-faceted 6-6 wing, who is headed to Division III power Washington University in St. Louis, put up 24 points in a regional semifinal win and 27 more in the regional championship victory over Buffalo Grove.
Barrington is the top sectional seed and will play the sectional on its home floor this week, starting with a rematch with MSL foe Fremd.
Catholic League’s presence is strong
Imagine the night the Catholic League would have had if that three-point shot by St. Laurence had dropped in at the buzzer to beat Simeon?
Despite that near epic upset –– and a Brother Rice loss to Bloom in the regional final –– the Catholic League was still able to celebrate eight regional championships Friday night.
Leo, DePaul and Montini won Class 2A regional titles. Mount Carmel, Fenwick, St. Ignatius and De La Salle won Class 3A regional titles. And St. Rita captured a Class 4A regional championship.
Aside from the expected regional championship from league champ Wheaton Warrenville South, it was a rough week for the DuKane Conference.
Lake Park, the fourth seed in the Bartlett Sectional, was upset by No. 12 seed Naperville North out of the DuPage Valley Conference in the regional championship.
St. Charles North was also beaten up by a DuPage Valley team, losing to DeKalb 74-57 in the regional final.
Batavia, a 21-win team, was playing the regional on its home floor and hoping for a crack at No. 3 seed Benet. But the sixth-seeded Bulldogs were upset in the regional semifinal –– by DuKane foe Glenbard North. Benet then walloped Glenbard North by 20 points.