HINSDALE – A year after capturing the championship of Hinsdale Central’s Holiday Classic while making its debut in the event, Bolingbrook’s boys basketball team entered Saturday’s finals with a good opportunity to win another title there.
Facing a St. Rita squad that was only a game over .500 and had recently dropped six games in a row, the once-beaten Raiders looked to extend their momentum into the 2018 portion of the schedule by again claiming top honors.
But their evening turned into a roller coaster-like event, with a mix of highs and lows. And unlike the classic indoor spectacle that briefly graced Bolingbrook so many years ago at Old Chicago, this is one thrill ride that the Raiders likely will take a pass on in the future.
Coach Rob Brost’s Raiders led by nine points at halftime but only made one late basket in the fourth quarter as they fell, 55-49, to the Mustangs, who capped their first visit to the tournament as unexpected champions.
Signs of a troubled ride began only 2:32 in when Kaleb Thornton exited with a finger injury that sidelined him for the remainder of the game. But despite that setback, Bolingbrook (10-2) grabbed a 19-9 lead late in the first quarter after second-team all-tourney pick Joseph Yesufu (15 points) hit two 3-pointers, and the Raiders still were up 19-12 after eight minutes.
After the Mustangs (9-7) pulled to within 27-23 after two baskets from Alec Millander (11 points), the Raiders made three of the next four baskets, including another 3 from Yesufu to go with later layups from first-team selection Tyler Cochran (14 points, 10 rebounds) and Kameron Leonard (six rebounds) to grab a 34-25 halftime lead. Joseph Saracco also helped the cause by scoring all eight of his points in the first half.
But there’s a good reason why St. Rita was regarded as one of the Chicago area’s better teams before the season, and it started to demonstrate that in the third quarter as it outscored the Raiders, 17-9, to close to within 43-42 with eight minutes remaining.
Joel Watts (13 points) and Laden Gladney (nine points, six rebounds) both scored five points during that pivotal quarter, and things stayed tight the rest of the way. The Mustangs relied on a balanced scoring attack in which eventual tournament MVP Jordan Matthews was limited to six points, but five of his teammates finished ahead of him.
“Every team has their ups and downs,” Matthews said. “It’s never a good time to be at a low point, but we hit our low point at a good time. It’s best to be playing good basketball toward the end of the season, and we’re capable of doing that right now. We have to continue to play disciplined since coach (Gary DeCesare) preaches that all of the time, so we just have to keep it going. We’re on a good streak right now, so why stop?”
Suddenly back in the game, the Mustangs were content to rely on a patient attack after that. They finally moved in front for good at 47-45 on a 3 from Watts while the Raiders struggled to find any offense during the fourth quarter.
All they could muster were four free throws from Yesufu before Leonard finally made a layup with only four seconds left to account for their lone field goal in 12 attempts from the floor.
Meanwhile, St. Rita was doing a good job of wrapping up its upset win as it connected on all eight of its free-throw tries, with Gladney responsible for half of that total.
“We were up for most of the game and couldn’t put them away,” Brost said. “Our shot selection, especially in the fourth quarter, was subpar. We had opportunities to extend the lead, and we just didn’t take advantage of them. This was the first time that we didn’t have Kaleb, and to not have him for the entire game, we needed to make some adjustments. We made a few, but we didn’t make some others.
“But we’re 10-2 and a top-10 team in the state, so obviously there’s a lot to be encouraged about. We’re going to take a day or two off and then get back to the gym and get ready to go, and nothing is hurt in the big picture. So we’re going to come back and be ready to go and learn from this. We showed in the first half how good we can be and, I thought, dominated it. We’ve beaten some really good teams, and when the expectations for your program are like ours are, our kids are disappointed, but we’re going to get better and come back.”