The biggest and best of the 2021-22 high school basketball season

After two years of indescribable emotions and wrecked seasons as a result of Covid, we welcomed back high school basketball in full force over the past four months.

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Barrington’s Daniel Hong (2) controls the ball in the first half against Young.

Barrington’s Daniel Hong (2) controls the ball in the first half against Young.

Allen Cunningham/For the Sun-Times

After two years of indescribable emotions and wrecked seasons as a result of Covid, we welcomed back high school basketball in full force over the past four months. The return didn’t disappoint.

Here is a look back at the biggest and best of the 2021-2022 season.

Biggest story: Glenbard West

What else is left to be said?

A once-in-a-lifetime team from Glen Ellyn emerged as a likable heavy favorite, energizing a fan base that became a side story of its own. The Hilltoppers played anyone and everyone en route to winning a Class 4A state championship and did so in convincing fashion.

Biggest postseason story: Lemont

Yes, Glenbard West was the biggest story of the season. The Hilltoppers then had to deal with the pressure of everyone expecting them to win a state championship.

But Lemont’s run to a supersectional showdown with Simeon at UIC –– and then coming from behind and nearly pulling off another upset once there –– was the biggest postseason story.

The story evolved over the course of two-plus weeks. It first got legs with a regional title.

Lemont began the postseason as the No. 4 seed in a tough Marian Catholic Sectional. Coach Rick Runaas’ young team beat a tough Marian Catholic, the No. 5 seed that was fresh off winning the East Suburban Catholic Conference Tournament championship, in the regional final.

That win over Marian Catholic put itself in position to win the first sectional championship since 1975.

Lemont then upset top-seed Hillcrest, which Lemont had lost to just weeks earlier, and beat No. 2 seed Thornton and Ty Rodgers in the sectional championship.

As a result, Lemont, which began the season unranked, finished just outside the top 10 at No. 11 –– and returns the bulk of its team next year.

Most surprising team: Barrington

There were plenty of north suburban teams receiving preseason praise and who were ranked all season, starting with Glenbrook South and New Trier. But it was Barrington that stole the headlines when it mattered most.

First, Barrington upset Rolling Meadows in the Mid-Suburban League title game to close out the regular season. Then Will Grudzinski, Daniel Hong and the Broncos won their first sectional title in 20 years and stunned heavily favored Glenbrook South in the supersectional.

After playing Young tough in a state semifinal loss, Barrington beat Bolingbrook to finish third in the state with a school record 29 wins after being unranked in the preseason.

Runner-Up: Wheaton Warrenville South

Coach Mike Healy’s Tigers did it again; they snuck up on just about everyone.

When the season began Wheaton South was expected to “challenge” a couple of DuKane Conference teams, St. Charles North and Batavia, for the top spot in the league.

Unranked in the preseason, the Tigers ran roughshod over the league, finishing 14-0 and finishing 32-3 overall and ranked No. 10 in the final rankings. Wheaton South also beat Rolling Meadows, Brother Rice, Metamora, Benet, Orr and St. Francis in the regular season.

Yes, the season ended with a thud in a sectional championship blowout loss. But running into Glenbard West will do that to a team.

Biggest Class 4A upset: Barrington over Glenbrook South

Yes, some more love for Barrington.

The Broncos were a No. 1 seed in their own sectional. But everyone fully expected — and had already written in their bracket — the Glenbrook South Sectional winner to be playing in Champaign.

The Glenbrook South Sectional had three highly-ranked teams, including top 10 teams New Trier and Glenbrook South. The Barrington Sectional didn’t have a ranked team in it.

But Barrington pulled off the upset, beating a Glenbrook South team in the supersectional that had put together a sensational season while playing high-profile opponents.

The Titans beat Simeon and Yorkville Christian, knocked off New Trier and Rolling Meadows, took apart Curie and won the Wheeling Hardwood Classic and the tough CSL South. Back in early December the Titans were a handful for No. 1 Glenbard West in a 57-54 defeat.

Barrington’s schedule or rep didn’t match Glenbrook South’s, but the Broncos headed to Champaign and the State Finals with a 52-50 supersectional stunner.

Runner-up: Naperville North over Lake Park

The only low-seeded team in Class 4A to make a real dent in the state playoffs was Naperville North, thanks to the 12th-seeded Huskies winning a regional title.

After knocking off rival Naperville Central, the No. 5 seed, in the regional semifinals, Naperville North then upset fourth-seeded and 22-win Lake Park in the regional title game.

Naperville North, which entered the postseason with a 15-15 record, were the lowest-seeded team to advance to a sectional in the state.

Biggest Class 3A upset: Quincy over Normal

The tradition-rich Quincy program did feature senior Jeremiah Talton, a Division I recruit headed to New Orleans, but it was a team full of youth and just the third seed in its own sub-sectional.

Both O’Fallon and Collinsville were seeded ahead of Quincy. The Blue Devils beat them both.

Then Quincy squared off Normal. The Ironmen were 33-1 on the year and had not lost since early in December. Normal was ranked No. 4 in the final AP state rankings.

Quincy pulled off the upset, beating heavily favored Normal 56-51 before falling to Bolingbrook in the supersectional.

Best game: Glenbard West vs. Sierra Canyon

The most hyped game of the season –– and one of the biggest in the Chicago area in recent memory –– absolutely lived up to the hype and more. There was drama, excitement and energy.

A pair of nationally-ranked teams sold out Wintrust Arena and put on a show. Sierra Canyon, featuring Chicago native Amari Bailey and Bronny James, ended Glenbard West’s hope of a perfect season with a buzzer-beating win.

Runner-Up: Glenbrook South vs. Simeon

This one earned runner-up status due to the high-level, clean, crisp basketball that was played in a back-and-forth battle.

A packed gym and undercard to the Glenbard West-Young showdown that would follow at the When Sides Collide Shootout at Benet, Glenbrook South came from behind to beat Simeon 57-54.

Nick Martinelli was a show-stopper to start the game with 14 points and eight rebounds in the opening quarter. He finished with 21 points and 11 rebounds.

Honorable mention: Kenwood vs. Simeon

This one had it all, particularly in terms of the immense intensity between teams that were ranked No. 2 and No. 3 at the time.

The January Public League showdown filled the raucous small Kenwood gym and brought out the best in two talented teams. Simeon came in and nabbed a 85-79 win behind Jaylen Drane’s 27 points.

Best moment: Glenbard West vs. Sierra Canyon

The aforementioned “Best Game” was quite the moment for high school basketball. It was the most highly anticipated game in the Chicago area in years.

This was a must-see high school basketball event that sold out a college arena in minutes and was watched on an ESPN stream.

The game had it all: star players, huge crowd, television audience and plenty of hype. The fact the game lived up to all the hoopla made it a moment to remember from this 2021-2022 season.

Runner-Up: IHSA state finals crowd

It’s been a long, long time since the IHSA state finals had a buzz of any kind. And in order to have a buzz, a large crowd is needed.

With all that has transpired over the past two seasons, to see close to 10,000 fans in the State Farm Center on the final night of the high school basketball season was refreshing.

That was the scene as the Class 3A double overtime thriller between Metamora and Sacred Heart-Griffin ended and Glenbard West and Young took the floor for the Class 4A state title game.

While the IHSA did not release official attendance figures, the 15,500-seat arena had the look and feel of a championship game. The IHSA did respond saying the “estimate” is there were 9,000 to 10,000 fans for the final session Saturday night.

While the IHSA is still awaiting official and final totals, the IHSA stated preliminary numbers indicate attendance for the three-day event being between 35,000 to 36,000 fans. That’s an average, per session, of approximately 4,500 fans.

By comparison, over the last five years the tournament was played in Peoria, the IHSA states the average attendance, per session, was 2,700 for the Class 1A/2A tournament weekend and 3,300 for the Class 3A/4A tournament weekend.

But some of the lowest attendance totals came in recent years in Peoria. The 2019 Class 1A/2A weekend averaged just 2,300 fans per session. The Class 3A/4A weekend numbers were a paltry average of just 2,500 per session in 2018.

Overall, the state finals weekend was a win for the IHSA and high school basketball.

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