Maybe no one on the outside thought this was Lemont’s year.
There are just two seniors on the roster and none in the eight-man rotation Lemont leaned on in Friday’s Class 3A Marian Catholic Sectional final.
On the other side was Thornton, with four senior starters led by Illinois recruit Ty Rodgers.
But Lemont coach Rick Runaas asked his players two simple questions: Why not us? Why not now?
“Matas (Castillo), Nojus (Indrusaitus), Rokas (Castillo) — they’ve played as much basketball as anybody,” Runaas said. “It doesn’t matter what grade they’re in. They’re experienced. They know how to play.”
“Coach said we’ve had a whole season to play, we’re no longer the new kids,” junior forward Joe Pender said.
And they showed it, opening up a 13-point lead in the second quarter and earning an efficient 56-49 win.
Fresh off its first sectional title since 1975, Lemont (27-7) will seek the first trip to state in program history when it plays Simeon in Monday’s UIC Supersectional.
Rokas Castillo hit his first five three-point shots and finished with a game-high 21 points. Matas Castillo, Rokas’ twin brother, added 12 points. Indrusaitus, one of the state’s top sophomores, scored 10 and grabbed seven rebounds.
But the defensive effort on Rodgers may have been the biggest takeaway. Rodgers picked up his third foul in the first minute of the third quarter, his fourth about six minutes later and his fifth with 5:14 left and Thornton trailing by six.
He finished with six points on 2-of-9 shooting and six rebounds.
Lemont started out with 6-4 junior Patrick Gardner on Rodgers before shifting to a 1-2-2 zone with Indrusaitus, also 6-4, slipping in to help on the Thornton star.
So it was a good plan, one that also neutralized the rest of the Wildcats just enough.
“It was about team defense and getting on shooters,” Runaas said. “What we did effectively was not let them get out in transition. We didn’t turn it over a lot, didn’t have long misses.”
Rokas Castillo’s fourth three-pointer made it 22-9 early in the second quarter and the lead was 14, 36-22, when Thornton (23-6) finally made a run.
Ariohn Herring and Vincent Rainey each scored five points in a 10-0 spurt to cut the deficit to 36-32. But Lemont regrouped and the Wildcats never got closer than six again.
“They had a good plan,” Thornton coach Tai Streets said. “Ty was in foul trouble; we hoped that wouldn’t happen. But I’m proud of my guys, they kept fighting. ...
“We thought if we shut Nojus down, we were gonna be OK. But (the Castillos) stepped up. They’re as tough as they come.”
It wasn’t even just the big three who carried the load for Lemont. Pender had five of his seven points early and Gardner added five rebounds and two assists.
“A lot of people put a lot of focus on the top three,” Pender said. “It was big for Gavin (Kelby) to come off the bench, for Conor (Murray) to come off the bench. Pat (Gardner) had a good game.”
Herring led Thornton with 15 points, nine rebounds and two steals. Rainey scored 14 and Mark Williams added nine points.